“You’re getting used to me doing no wrong,” El-P says midway through Run The Jewels 3’s first single “Legend Has It,” and he’s not kidding. Over the course of two decades, El’s been a sort of gravitational force for good in hip-hop, his industrial production seemingly refusing to age and his verses getting sharper with each passing year. He doesn’t evolve anymore; he clarifies, paring away extraneous elements and ideas with each passing release, sounding only more like himself. Run The Jewels is the epitome of this, a creation of almost predatory singleness of purpose. When El-P and Killer Mike were called on to respond to Kendrick Lamar’s contentious “Control” verse a few years back, the emcees just looked at each other and laughed. “Some of us been going for the throat our whole careers,” El-P said. Run The Jewels is a corrective to anyone who didn’t immediately equate Mike and El-P as such: two great, angry emcees who, at the point in their careers when they were supposed to fade into irrelevance, instead spurred each other to go for the throat harder than ever. This is the single animating principle behind every second of every RTJ album, including the cat one. Especially the cat one.
Because of this, RTJ3 can safely, accurately, and comprehensively be described as “a third Run The Jewels album.” This is a good thing. The albums are differentiated from each other not by vast stylistic shifts but by highlights—a verse or a punchline or a particularly terse beat, all of which are present here. Check the sharp run from “Legend Has It” through the telltale “CHUT!” of a Danny Brown cameo two tracks later or Killer Mike’s ruthlessly beautiful verse on “Thursday In The Danger Room,” which concludes with a duet between Kamasi Washington’s sax and El-P’s fluttering robot synths. There isn’t a bad verse on the album, because of course there isn’t; these dudes have been doing this for too long to slip up. The whole point is consistency. Any grand distinctions are semantic: This album is longer than the others; they talk about their dicks slightly more; El-P kills a bunny, whereas Killer Mike killed a poodle on the first record; they rail against fuck-shit rather than fuck-boys. You can distinguish RTJ3 best by the things not on it: There’s a little less open-hearted camaraderie between the two emcees, Killer Mike seems less poised to attack other rappers, and El-P rarely does the paranoid sci-fi battle rap thing. They’re increasingly efficient.
The emcees’ long-running twin themes of vice and humanism return here unabated. On “2100,” Mike delivers his career mission statement: “Seen the devil give a sermon in the church / Seen an angel dancing in the club.” On the album closer, El-P delivers his: “You talk clean and bomb hospitals / So I speak with the foulest mouth possible.” These are not identical sentiments, but ones born from the shared quadrant of their lyrical Venn diagram. They’re coalescing as they pare down. RTJ10 will be 48 minutes of extremely hard snare drums and Killer Mike just howling “FUCK” like an Old Testament God, and it will probably still be good. The invective is absolute, the vision unyielding. It is, crucially, malleable. When Mike says, in the album’s final moments, “We are the gladiators that oppose all Caesars,” he’s speaking broadly. He will still not watch the goddamn throne, and he will not support a candidate who is the lesser of two evils. But he could also be talking about a shithead gym teacher. It’s faceless, righteous rage, which is why former Rage Against The Machine frontman Zack De La Rocha sounds so good in the album’s final moments. That band burned out after three records, its revolutionary politics turned into weight-room slogans and death-match usernames, after which De La Rocha disappeared, and his band went on to make comfortable corporate groan rock for a decade. Three albums deep, Killer Mike and El-P sound as hungry as ever, and the world is still full of Caesars with ripe throats.