Rap is home to several great three-album runs. Despite outliers like A Tribe Called Quest's People’s Instinctive Travels-The Low End Theory-Midnight Marauders, Danny Brown's XXX-Old-Atrocity Exhibition and Kendrick Lamar's Section.80-good kid, m.A.A.d. city-To Pimp A Butterfly, living up to and exceeding fan expectations while continually pushing your limits is a daunting task for any artist to accomplish once, much less twice. But I had to rewrite my book when Run The Jewels 3 fell out of the sky last Christmas Eve.
Nearly two decades into their respective careers, Killer Mike and El-P polished their chemistry to a gold-plated mirror sheen with the third entry in their RTJ trilogy, tag-team vigilante emcees pushing their way through America’s downfall with rhymes over beats as frightening as Samara from The Ring climbing out of her well. Here were two veterans, selling out more venues and licensing more cat-inspired remix albums for charity together than they ever had apart, and the music sounded incredible as ever.
The duo may have officially drawn the fist-and-gun logo first for their self-titled 2013 debut, but Mike and El’s bond was formed one year earlier. Mike's 2012 album R.A.P. Music was actually the first monster unleashed by the duo before they were officially a duo—a punishing project that combined Mike’s hardcore Southern slang over El’s apocalyptic beats.
2012 saw both men at their own respective crossroads. Mike’s fourth studio album PL3DGE (I Pledge Allegiance To the Grind 3) dropped a year prior on T.I.’s Grand Hustle imprint and he was looking for a new sound, over which he could throw his Southern mix of politics and pleasure. El-P’s defiantly independent label Definitive Jux had closed its doors in 2010 so he could focus on making the music that would eventually become the ice cold yet hopeful Cancer 4 Cure.
Mike was looking to retool his sound around the influence of Ice Cube and The Bomb Squad, a request that friend and Adult Swim On-Air VP and Creative Director Jason DeMarco already had an answer for: El-P. DeMarco and El had already worked on compilations together and even a Young Jeezy remix, so El agreed to make a song or two with Mike at Adult Swim in Atlanta. Neither of them expected to find a soulmate.
“You know how you spend your life looking for a sound? The greatest compliment that any artist or producer can have is ‘that’s your Snoop and Dre,’” Mike told Snoop Dogg during his GGN News interview. “When [El-P] put that music on, I knew for the first time in my career ‘oh, this is who I was born to rap over their shit, no question fuckin’ about it.” One or two songs turned into Mike hounding El for the twelve that would birth hip-hop’s most unlikely boot to the face. Snoop had finally found his Dre.
R.A.P. Music wastes no time with its opening track “Big Beast.” The song hits the ground running like Ice Cube’s “The Nigga You Love To Hate,” but with even more teeth. On my first listen, I was barely able to pick myself up from the manhole cover El-P’s punchy synths left me on when Mike started running Atlanta tourists for their jewels. The beat might bust your sternum into hyperspace, but Mike, Bun B and T.I.’s stories are the chains that rip you right back down to Earth.
Mike and El’s spacey, yet grounded chemistry bubbled all across R.A.P. Music, from a superficial showing of skill (“Go!,” “Butane [Champion’s Anthem]”) to self-reflective, multilayered storytelling. Mike pays homage to women and fears that he might “die slain like my king by a terrorist” on “Untitled.” The Wu-Tang-inspired “Jojo’s Chillin’” is a hedonistic fantasy following a guy who gets away with more than he should over a punchy breakbeat. “Don’t Die” frames a life or death struggle with police in Mike’s home inside not one, not two, but three different beat switches, where cartoonish exuberance doesn’t detract from Mike’s anti-authority message.
By far, though, the centerpiece of the entire album is “Reagan,” a chilling trip through the Reagan Era from the streets it targeted so lethally. Part history lesson, part Pan-Africanist manifesto, and part political takedown, American politics are picked apart as much by El’s stabbing keys and warbles as it is by Mike’s well-intentioned rallying cry. If you’re looking for the precursor to songs like “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” or “Thieves! (Screamed The Ghost),” “Reagan” is ground zero. It surely played a part in waking my college sophomore ass up.
The balance on display throughout R.A.P. Music is proof positive that Mike and El were born to work together. I remember getting snatched by “Big Beast” playing during Adult Swim bumps and finding solace in the surprisingly fitting combination of Mike’s wisdom and El’s rattling beats. This crackling energy was the start of the fierce yet playful formula that birthed Run The Jewels and turned their first project into something more than just a 10-track stocking stuffer offered by Fool’s Gold Records.
“You may not think that this shit is what you want, but if you play this shit in your system you’re gonna murder everybody around you,” El said of his production during an interview with Pitchfork.
As Rebellious African People Music, Mike really did pass down a love for knowledge and *hard* beats with this project. In their own ways, Mike and El had been harnessing that irreverent energy their whole careers, but R.A.P. Music gave them the blueprint they needed to help reach their apex.
Five years, a growing fan base, and a radio show later, those jewels are being run.
By CineMasai. Follow him on Twitter.