Goddammit Run The Jewels, you couldn't wait seven days could you? Now you've gone and compromised the integrity of every 2016 Best Of list going. As every single tweet that day agreed, RTJ3 was the best Christmas present we never knew we asked for, and - with my body clock still running on office hours - the perfect pre-theatre before my dog performed the traditional Christmas Day Opening Ceremony by bounding into my childhood bedroom and munching a sock. As I lay in bed at half-eight that morning, awash in muted darkness, protest bars and hulking beats, I couldn't but realise that Santa's woke as fuck.
El-P's production is the largest present under the tree, which you eagerly fixate on first; and it's loud, proud, and impeccable. There's the bungee-jumping synths twisted around 'Call Ticketron'; the burping bass drone on 'Hey Kids'; the drum & bass canter of 'Panther Like a Panther'; and the haunting, ethereal bleeps of 'Don't Get Captured'. It's simultaneously the richest, most satisfying output of El-P's distinguished oeuvre, and also his most innovative, embodied in the jazzy sanguinity of 'Thursday in the Danger Room' and the weary euphony of '2100'. As explored later, the subject matter has dramatically altered, and allowed El-P's aptitude for heterogeneity to flourish.
'Legend Has It' warrants a paragraph for itself. The three-and-a-half minutes bombastically represent the march of the RTJ braggadocio, and as it glides from verse to verse the tools change from synths and kick-drums to horns and bells but the beat and dogmatic self-control remains utterly resolute. It's a masterclass in how to make a rap song, compounded by some of the sharpest swanks of the duo's legacy; "RT& J, we the new PB & J/we dropped a classic today." Furthermore 'Legend Has It' is the fulcrum in the four-track run from 'Talk To Me' to 'Hey Kids', the most exhilarating fifteen minutes of music I've experienced since I can't remember when.
There's also unprecedented vocal legerdemain; Killer Mike's third verse on 'Call Ticketron' invokes the sordid mellifluousness of Big Boi, 'Thieves' showcases an understated cleverness in its stop/start rapid-fire, and '2100' is almost a soul song in its demand for verbal, forlorn melody. To maximise the record's intoned dexterity, RTJ exhibit the sage acquisition of Danny Brown's idiosyncratic squawk for 'Hey Kids'; he classically announces himself with that barking 'TAK!' then crams a first line with homonyms, myriad multisyllabic rhymes, and layered majesty; "word architect, when I arch the tech, I'll part ya neck," and it only gets more fire from there. Paul White's production for Atrocity Exhibition was aptly murky and senseless, but El-P possesses the golden touch of elevating great rappers to a superlative plane. Remember Nicki's verse on 'Monster', or Kendrick's on 'Control', or Earl's on 'Really Doe'? Now you're getting the idea. I'm starting a petition on Change.Org encouraging El-P to produce for Vince Staples' seductive warble, as I maintain such a gift would convince every global despot to abdicate.
Lyrically, the aforequoted Brown line is a synecdoche. There's a gluttony of pop culture references, historical allusions and linguistic flexing, such that it'll take weeks if not months for those bar analysts over at Genius.com to pour over every detail sufficiently; from El-P's can-opening "Notice me Senpai!" to Mike's cast-calling of the 1995 Atlanta Braves team on 'Stay Gold.' Bar analysts are badly needed, for RTJ3 has more bars than Shoreditch High Street.
The crux is the record's surprising heart, the vulnerability which is peeled back in the run-in, with '2100' as its prologue. The one-two punch (and it's a winding blow) of 'Oh Mama' and 'Thursday in the Danger Room' - the latter featuring urbane saxophone vapours from the prodigious Kamasi Washington - evince Mike and EL-P candidly opening up about their personal relationships and struggles, exposing everyday frustrations and affections, ordinary grief and love. 'Thursday', particularly, meditates on the fluidity of death in the mind, that the imprint of a passed friend or loved one stays with you and makes you a better person for it, while emphasising how important it is to treasure these people while they're still here.
Their scattershot invective, everybody's-a-fuckboy targeting system, and almost omnipotent musk of authority, have always been intoxicating; but now it's underpinned by a roaring humanity. Perspective has turned, as has everyone's, towards the things that matter, those intangible ideals of empathy, thoughtfulness, and charity; "right for a right, wrong for a wrong/this is clearly not life's design."
These reflections culminate in the rallying 'A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters' - arguably their most expressly sober insubordination - where Zach de la Rocha promises "this song's a dirty bomb for your dirty dealings." There's a time for contemplation, and there's a time for guerrilla warfare. The track ordering is deliberate, and hugely effective; the solemnity of the confessional pair establishes very real stakes before RTJ declare their response with zealous fury. You can't take what sincerely matters to us, because we won't let you.
If I was surgically nitpicking, I retain there's a modicum of inconsistency; sporadic tracks don't quite reach as high as the majority, but this rather manufactured nexus isn't based on good/bad but great/good. On a sprawling fifty-minute tracklist flawless synchronicity is essentially impossible; the quibble is relative.
We've anthropomorphised 2016 into some sort of Buffy-style Big Bad, cartoonishly vindictive but inexorably beatable because the good guys always win. But RTJ reason that after the first series the villains only ever get more evil, more malevolent, and plausibly all-conquering; there's real fear and melancholy here, an unexpected appeal for a basic community of compassion and generosity, and a denouement guiding careful solidarity against the toxic counter-culture Hekylling into a new world order. We've had countless albums predicating calls for mobilisation before, and they're generally provocative and valued but ultimately specious, but on RTJ3 there's a visceral directness that cuts to the aorta. Our Rome is crumbling, and we should be scared, and sad, and really angry; but far more significantly we have to do something we haven't done since the Berlin Wall fell; act.