"RTJ3" is the moment when Killer Mike and El-P's blend of political messages and dick jokes begins to feel slightly awkward.
"When I started this band, didn't have no plans, didn't see no arc
Just run with the craft, have a couple laughs, make a buck and dash"
That's El-P on the first half of RTJ3 closer "A Report To The Shareholders/Kill Your Masters," providing a band update that makes for quite the aptly-named song. He's right-- him and Mike were introduced to each other by the creative director of a comedy network, after all-- and after lending each other a hand on their respective most recent solo projects, the unlikely duo emerged with a self-titled debut that did away with their conceptual musings in favor of pure, unadulterated shit-talk. Within minutes on one of the finest self-titled track ones on a self-titled debut album in history (shouts to "Black Sabbath" on Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath and "Motorhead" on Motorhead by Motorhead, among others), Mike's talking about smashing Pam Grier types and El's drawing up the vivid image of a nun receiving a cum-shot.
Things changed somewhere between then and now though. For many, RTJ have become this decade's go-to "political rap" choice, mostly because of powerful cuts like RTJ2's "Early," which rallied against police brutality in Mike's verse and in its arresting (no pun intended) video, but also because of Mike's activism in the public eye and both artists' outspoken views on last year's presidential election. Both dudes' political streaks run back to the beginning of their careers-- check Company Flow's awesome 1999 screed "Patriotism" or Mike dismantling the War on Drugs on 2003's "Scared Straight"-- but it wasn't until they began their festival-friendly, extremely well-branded duo that outlets like CNN began to take notice. More power to them. Even though our opinions don't always line up, I still think it's awesome to see artists of any medium put themselves out on a political limb and use their (in RTJ's case, newfound) cultural visibility to get the message out, whatever that message may be.
RTJ3 isn't political by like, Dead Prez or Public Enemy standards, but it's probably the duo's most outspoken effort to date, and with good reason. El and Mike level their therapeutic rage not only at that devil-elect with a "bad toupee and a spray tan," but also at the entire military-industrial complex that's infected every presidency they can remember. "Can't contain the disdain for y'all demons/You talk clean and bomb hospitals," El raps on the closer, explicitly referencing Obama's unchanged, optimistic rhetoric in the wake of US bombings of charity-run hospitals in the Middle East. El uses that as justification for the less political parts of the album-- "So I speak with the foulest mouth possible"-- and while I agree that sometimes closing my eyes and counting to fuck is the best medicine for unjust situations out of your control, this is where the biggest problem with Run The Jewels' ongoing shtick presents itself. Since Mike and El have stepped up to fill the undeniably empty gap in political rap, they've allowed their more serious side to play chicken with their initial "couple of laughs" goal. Both have continued to accelerate towards each other, anti-capitalist sentiments on one side and dick jokes on the other, and meet in unwieldy collisions, like when El paraphrases economist John Maynard Keynes ("We all dead, fuck it") then gets it tatted on his scrotum on RTJ2's "Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)." Vulgarity and powerful sociopolitical critiques aren't mutually exclusive (just ask Trey Parker and Matt Stone), but Run The Jewels are attempting an increasingly volatile blend of Slim Shady-era Eminem and The Coup-style dismantling of the system, and it doesn't always pay off.
In the best way possible, the project has always felt like two friends battling each other. Together, Mike and El have come up with some of the best punchlines of their careers, but especially in El's case, that well seems to be running dry on RTJ3. On one hand, he leans on tired references to pop culture like Jaws ("You're gonna need a bigger boat, boys"), Mr. Ed ("A horse is a horse of course"), Willy Wonka ("Oompa Loompas, I'll shoot a tune at your medullas") and Youtube's "Weird Satanist Guy" ("Notice me, senpai"). On the other, he makes the same lame "kids on your couch" joke that J. Cole got roasted for on Jeremih's "Planez." This is a dude who used to critique "Mayor Doomberg" with witty sci-fi epics, and is still capable of boiling down his career into one potent line (he's never been described more accurately than "the son of Rick Rubin, Rush, and Full Thrust," as metal-influenced boom-bap, progressive rock, and sci-fi might as well be his holy trinity), so it hurts to hear those clunkers. Mike is better at staying above water (and his personal descriptor, "Nelson Mandela of Atlanta dope sellers," is just as good as El's), but it's still a little awkward to hear his Sun-Tzu references clash with sex talk.
RTJ3's most poignant moments stand out as they did on its predecessor, namely: "Talk To Me," "Don't Get Captured," "Thieves (Screamed The Ghost)," "2100," the elegiac "Thursday In The Danger Room," and of course, the closer. The times when Mike or El cut through the mix with a sobering bar, or on about half of the album when El and his production team nix the bells and whistles of the battle rap tracks for queasy, intricate prog, stand as some of the strongest material either rapper has ever laid to wax, and while there are flashy moments of excitement that come courtesy of the more creative dick jokes, it seems clear which should stay if an either/or scenario was proposed. I'm not actually proposing that, but I think that as this collaborative effort ages, we're seeing what elements of each others' styles Killer Mike and El-P enhance, as well as the ones they merely inflate.