Art by Grady Brannan
Doc Zeus spiked Rex Tillerson’s tea with polonium.
If you played a drinking game for every time El-P has been described as “dystopian,” you’d be too drunk to read this sentence. A quick Google search for “El-P + dystopia” yields limitless results, quickly proving that most music critics are platitudinous herd animals. Conversely, his reputation as rap’s most paranoid futurist has always seemed objectively warranted.
El-P’s music matured within a post-9/11 America and hip-hop’s independent experimental golden age. Accordingly, his music became a black mirror for that infamous era, unspooling 9/11 conspiracy theories and un-gentrified narratives of Bloomberg New York over wildly original beats of discordant synths and distorted guitars. It made for air-raid opera. The production was weaponized sci-fi distortion, the rhymes free-associative and obsessed with capitalism’s destructive capabilities, state-sanctioned torture, and the military industrial police state. It was welcomed cynicism in a regressive America lusting for permanent war and Wall Street blood money.
You can trace the roots of El-P’s dystopian paranoia back to the Clinton Administration. See Company Flow’s “Patriotism” from the seminal ’90s underground rap compilation Soundbombing II: a five-minute conflagration of free-associative madness that feels both like the conspiratorial ramblings of dorm room Che Guevaras in re-appropriated Salvation Army fatigues AND a prescient dispatch from an alternative, apocalyptic universe.
“You up against Jesus freaks forming corporations and young Republicans, Indelible NATO force hidden agenda on puppet governments. I’m lovin’ it! Keep the people guessing who I’m running with. Control the population and hide behind sacred covenants.”
It’s as though Hunter S. Thompson didn’t kill himself but instead travelled to the future to desperately transmit warnings of the oncoming Trump Administration.
You might have dismissed El-P’s rants in an era in which our freedoms felt more secure, but with the prospects of Donald J. Trump assuming ultimate power, end time prophecies are beginning to feel a little too real for comfort. We’re not only up against Jesus freaks, evil corporations, Alt-Right Nazis, fake news, and a choke-fucked congress, but also one narcissistic reality TV star- cum-dictator with an undiagnosed personality disorder and a tiny finger hovering perilously close to nuclear button. The dystopia is really here, folks, and it’s tinted a pale shade of agent orange.
As a member of Run The Jewels, hip-hop’s most fearsome tag team, El found kinship with fellow veteran rapper and hip-hop anti-disestablishmentarian Killer Mike. As a brassy, bellicose Dungeon Family alumni, Mike might seem like a polar opposite to El’s jaded New York pessimism, but their mutual distrust for authority and deep cynicism for the true motives of American society make the union an unlikely fit. Where the Def Jux founder was Phillip K. Dick meets Public Enemy, Mike approaches music from the prospective of college-educated, ex-drug dealer turned firebrand preacher. The results are immediate and jarring.
El initially produced Killer Mike’s classic R.A.P. Music in 2012, offering Mike fresh soundscapes for songs like the scorching polemic “Reagan,” a jagged, sci-fi stabbing layered atop his southern-fried roots. A year later, they officially formed Run The Jewels, releasing the first of three self-titled records that provided the vets a surprising late-career critical and commercial renaissance, inspiring new audiences to throw up the group’s gun-and-fist iconography in solidarity.
It does not take an empath to sense the specter of societal collapse on the group’s third self-titled album, RTJ3. Released miraculously on Christmas Fuckin’ Day, the album crackles with an anxious energy—a rap panic attack in long form—crafted over a long, farcical year of endless scandal, celebrity deaths, “economic anxiety” (it’s racism, doofuses, just say it’s fucking racism. It’ll be ok.) and terrorist tweets.
Killer Mike spent the year campaigning as a surrogate for Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and he’s obviously thought a lot about the greater world around him. “Choose the lesser of evils and the Devil still gon’ win/It could be all over tomorrow, kill our masters and star again,” he raps at one point on RTJ3—presumably suggesting an equal distaste for Hillary Clinton as with Donald Trump and a contempt for the “masters” that require us to choose between two bad options. It’s an album where you can almost sense what was going on in the news when they recorded each song.
On the first two RTJ albums, Mike and Jamie seemed to want nothing more than to have a little fun and to re-establish their bonafides as flame-throwing shit talkers. The production on those albums was more stripped down and rawer than most of El-P’s more sonically dense solo material—let alone solo Mike’s Dungeon Family influences—giving those albums a combative clarity of purpose. RTJ3 is different, though. It’s more a divided and, at times, a more rich experience than the previous two efforts, split between a desire to please fans of the group’s no frills, lyrical pugilism and to speak to the darker state of the times. Perhaps, necessarily, it feels more akin to the apocalyptic tones and space operatic anthems of El-P’s solo material than the leaner, meaner work of the group.
The first half of the album is a front-loaded banana clip of classic end-to-end burners. Tracks like “Legend Has It” and “Hey Kids! (Bomaye)” smack like jaw-crunching, concussive blows to the cranium. It’s no secret that Killer Mike and El-P are lyrical traditionalists who rely more on clever couplets, jagged witticisms, and pop culture references more than filtered production magic and frog-in-throat vocal tics. The guys are unafraid to pack a bar with an extra syllable if it packs a proper punch.
Their chemistry as group members has become atomically effective. While early efforts could feel a little like two lifelong solo artists from different sides of the tracks feeling each other out, El and Mike have become a completely cohesive unit, trading bars, punctuating each other’s sentence with adlibs, and skillfully blending verses together. On “Oh Mama,” the album’s most goofily fun track, the pair seamlessly transition between each other’s couplets with an earned grace.
If you like RTJ’s more irreverent, fight-picking side, there’s plenty on here to love, but it’s when the album gets softer that RTJ3 transcends the group’s typical ambitions and truly levitates. The BOOTS-assisted “2100,” a post-election ballad released as a love letter to fans heartbroken by the shocking results, serves as the album’s emotional centerpiece. Led by a lovely chorus by singer-songwriter BOOTS, “2100” finds the pair to be palpably plain-spoken about their hope that tomorrow will be a better day. “I just wanna live, I don’t wanna ever have to load a clip/Only hunt bliss/I am still a kid in my heart/But these motherfuckers sick,” are some of the most optimistic words of El-P’s career—potentially offering hope in a world where a lot of sadness and misery is almost assuredly around the corner.
Run The Jewels 3 doesn’t end with the listener feeling warm and fuzzy about the prospects of a better tomorrow. Instead, the album ends with revolution courtesy of the Zach De La Rocha-assisted “A Report To The Shareholders/Kill Your Masters.” El-P and Mike know that a fight is coming and it’s no time to pretend any different. It’s about to swallow us.
“Mere mortals, the Gods coming so miss me with the whoopty-whoop/You take the devil for God, look how he doin’ you/I’m Jack Johnson, I beat a slave catcher snaggletooth/I’m Tiger Flowers with a higher power, hallelu’,” Killer Mike bellows on the track with a confidence of a man who is in a fight that he must win or perish from. A reminder that if we’re going to defeat Trumpism and beat back fascism, it’s important to always remain hostile.