It would be an understatement to declare hip-hop as being in a transition period. While new faces like Migos and Future are riding high alongside those that have commanded respect this entire decade, the dominant sound that runs through the scene has changed dramatically from chart topper to chart topper. While aggressive, message-driven rap that pushes the boundaries of social commentary and critical thinking has been passé for some time, Run The Jewels has blown up bigger than ever, resulting in sold-out shows around the world including Wednesday night at the Shrine in Los Angeles.
Currently sporting a #1 album on the Billboard R&B and Hip-Hop charts and touring in a sponsored Gears of War bus (a video game that the duo also appears in), RTJ took an unusual path to this particular gig. They went from underground misfits to buzzworthy blogger fodder to undeniable forces within three albums. That middle era might be the highlight of a short period by two industry veterans in Atlanta’s Killer Mike and Brooklyn’s El-P, but the sudden attention coming from mainstream sources propelled them to dozens of prime festival bookings for two straight years. The time off they took after that ride to the top did the duo well, as their latest album RTJ3 emerged ahead of schedule and proved that they were legit, regardless of hopped on or off the bandwagon.
The 5,000+ people packed into The Shrine obviously knew this, chanting along with every lyric, filling in every chorus, and erupting for every predictable guest appearance. Danny Brown, Boots, and Gangsta Boo (draped in a fur coat) each slew their respective stanzas, but Zach de la Rocha showing up for the encore of "Kill Your Masters" and "Close Your Eyes" was worth the price of admission alone. The three men together felt like the natural evolution of both hip-hop and a band like Rage Against The Machine: brilliant rhymes blended with laser-focused messaging. de la Rocha was as ferocious as ever, confidently bouncing between two of his brothers that are currently at the top of their game.
But this set was not just guest spots and singles. 20 songs flew by rapidly, a whole gamut of emotions ranging from sex and love to war and peace examined and on display. Killer Mike's profile has risen in the past year with his backing of presidential nominee Bernie Sanders, but if you forgot that he is a full-time bona fide lyricist, this show solidified it for you. El-P has always had the chops, back from his Def Jux days to the present, but his decision to move more into the spotlight and carry 2/3rds of the group's weight, producing the music as well, shows his jump into the pantheon of untouchable performers in his field. Standouts like "Panther Like A Panther" and "Hey Kids" prove these guys did not take a step back between albums, and that playing at mainstream festivals did nothing to soften their chops. Behind the duo, DJ Trackstar has proven to be more than just a complimentary player, turning into a full-fledged member of the group. His ability to perfectly set the audio table for his team to feast on is the backbone of the entire show. The occasional ad lib moments show his ability to do more than play El-P’s beats and keep the show fresh.
Selling out a huge Los Angeles venue might not seem like much when a band is topping the charts and touring globally, but an indoor, semi-intimate gathering of like-minded, well-intentioned hip-hop fans watching a duo in the second primes of their life is significant. From tiny clubs in the Midwest to this show, RTJ has never lost sight of what brought them to the top and their genuine, earnest blend of humility, swag, and undeniable skill will ensure that they stay there for a long time.