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Op-ed: “RTJ3, Political Art, and the Precarious Balance Between The Margins and Mainstream”

by Josh Ginsberg (@world0fdarkness)

At what point does catering to the mainstream become an artist’s moral imperative? At what point does eschewing the attention of the masses undercut the artist’s credibility?
Most popular music in America today functions primarily as entertainment, regardless of whatever political signifiers it employs, and ultimately functions more as a branding exercise. But when an artist engaged in doing actual political work fails to commit their art to those same principles, opting instead to embrace comfort instead of maximizing their potential impact on the world around them, their political credibility is undermined.
It’s been difficult to listen to RTJ3, released a month after the 2016 presidential election, and reckon with how apolitical it is. It arrived at the end of a long year during which Killer Mike made headlines for campaigning for Bernie Sanders, engaging in conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates and promoting a conscious patronage of Black-owned businesses. Interviews on CNN, and The View, and with Senator Sanders himself positioned Killer Mike as an artist ready to ask important questions and engage in public discourse on the big stage. As the culmination of Killer Mike’s breakout year, RTJ3 falls flat.
As an album, RTJ3 is not particularly interesting. It’s a familiar rewrite of its previous incarnation, with a little less vitality. El-P’s EDM adjacent beats remained, as did the self-described pugnacious rhymes that characterized their ascent but the scope of their work remained identical. Especially considering its long gestation, RTJ3 a missed opportunity for artistic growth as well as political change and in some ways it seems like their aesthetic insularity is responsible for their failure to rise to the occasion and capitalize on Killer Mike’s newfound spotlight.
Run the Jewels achieved the status of a (“counter-”?) cultural institution very quickly. After an enjoyable and mostly apolitical debut in the summer of 2013, Run the Jewels reached a wider audience when Run The Jewels 2 was hailed as one of the year’s finest. In critics’ appraisals of that album its timeliness was often cited as a selling point: it spoke to the anger of a people who knew far too many victims of police brutality by name in a world reluctant to stop the killings. Even if their discussion of police brutality was mostly limited to Killer Mike’s verse on “Early” and the video for “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck),” Run the Jewels’ performances on the festival circuit stoked the flames of audiences’ political fury. Two fortyish rappers, who had been making music since the mid-nineties to little fanfare and inconsistent acclaim, were suddenly being framed by critics as the most vital voices in music—even if Run The Jewels 2 resembled The Itchy and Scratchy Show more closely than serious discourse. Run the Jewels subsequently embraced the way they were perceived, played their politics up and their audience palpably hungered for Run the Jewels’ jackhammer response to an eighteen month election cycle that seemed bought and sold from the start and drew out America’s ugliest tendencies.

When the long-awaited RTJ3 finally came, the world felt broken down. American progressivism had been dealt a punch to the gut. If ever an album had the capability of unifying and rallying people in a moment such as this, RTJ3 emphatically did not. Instead, RTJ3 feels as meaningful as the “Bernie or Bust” movement or a protest vote for Jill Stein. In the wake of the 2016 election, all the bluster and empty trash talk Run the Jewels engage has a nasty sting to it.
RTJ3 never had the chance to influence the outcome of a presidential election—no more than Beyoncé or Drake or Justin Bieber could. But it was an opportunity for two angry oddballs to stand on the soapbox and speak to a wider audience than ever before, and in that regard, too, RTJ3 falls flat. Mike and El play to their base and so Run the Jewels did not match the growth of Killer Mike’s public persona. They did not get a feature from Kendrick Lamar—who name-checked Killer Mike on To Pimp a Butterfly—or call in their Dungeon Family connect to get Future on a track. Instead of featuring a guest who resonates with teens, they made another album destined to be beloved more or less exclusively by the bespectacled, bearded Brooklyn set. Mike and El are rappers who have always existed in the margins of hip hop and RTJ3—doubtlessly the single work in either rapper’s discography with the most breakout potential—keeps them in the same layer of the music industry stratosphere that they existed in before their big moment began.
Barring an insane amount of success, RTJ3 was always going to be the most eagerly awaited album of both Killer Mike and El-P’s careers. The millions of Americans enraged by a Trump victory were the best audience they were going to get. December of 2016 was Run the Jewels’ perfect storm. It should’ve been the moment they were waiting for. #AllLivesMatter is invoked as a punchline but no meaningful discussion of privilege is to be found. They tell audiences to “kill him” in Congolese but never specify who or why. Light on substance, RTJ3 lacks the weight that its predecessor suggested it might offer. After RTJ3, I can’t imagine the same excitement will ever await Run the Jewels again.