The Hardcore hip-hop duo Run the Jewels began collaborating in the early 2010s, with Atlanta rapper and former OutKast protégée Killer Mike’s 2012 album R.A.P. Music entirely produced by New York rapper-producer El-P, who had himself come up in the late 1990s as a key member of independent rap collective Company Flow. In working together, the two evidently discovered a rich creative groove, and a year later christened themselves under the name Run the Jewels, consummating the collaboration with a self-titled debut.
The potential of their creative chemistry was evident from the start, with El-P’s grimy and loopy production proving the perfect mixing medium between his own layered and intricate wordplay and Mike’s ferocious and incendiary punchlines. The debut was phenomenal and immediately acclaimed, but as the collaborations kept coming, the duo only kept improving, fast establishing themselves as the most consistent, and arguably best, rap outfit of the decade. The production became more ambitious and pristine, the flows and lyricism more complex and hilarious, and the chemistry between the two more cosy, until they seemed almost to have been separated at birth and rediscovered one another.
The albums grew longer and more varied, and most significantly, introduced a revolutionary and political spirit of unrest and contempt for the status quo, one that would only grow to define their output more and more as the years went on and the outside world grew bleaker. However, this element did nothing to dull their savagery, their energy or their trademark outrageous humour, instead lending legitimacy to their righteous fury, and giving them all the reason needed to sharpen their blades and take no prisoners.
Out of the four albums in their discography to date, Run the Jewels haven’t got a single bad or even weak song, so there was a lot of competition for the final ten, and listening to these ten should in no way be taken as a substitute for a deep dive into their catalogue. This is more of an appreciation piece than advice to those new to their music. If you are new then I would advise you to start with their most recent release and then go through the other three chronologically.
“Yankee and the Brave Pt. 4” – RTJ4
As previously suggested, Run the Jewels started as a force to be reckoned with, but only grew more formidable with each release. Their most recent album RTJ4 made it clear from it’s opening moments that it would be the outpouring of all the backed up creative verve and energy the two had been stockpiling in the three and a half years since their last release. Across six ferocious verses the duo frames the opening track as the cold open to a TV serial about a pair of ride or die outlaws, imagining Mike under siege by corrupt police and making plans to go out all guns blazing, until El-P pulls up in the Grand Nat to break through the police lines and speed away with his comrade, leaving the cops in the dust. It’s the most hype track in a discography structurally defined by hype, and by the time the outro pulls out with both men hollering “Yankee and the Brave are here, everybody hit the deck!” you’re buckled in for the ride of a lifetime to follow.
“Walking in the Snow” – RTJ4
Of all the politically charged material dropped throughout the Run the Jewels canon, perhaps none felt more timely or righteous than “Walking in the Snow”. Although recorded months before, the album was dropped in the midst of global protests against racially motivated police brutality following a string of unmotivated killings, to which this track was able to refer, with brutal and chilling prescience.
The track opens with a fantastic verse from El-P attacking working class whites supporting the ICE internment camps at the U.S. border, warning them it’s only a matter of time before growing financial inequalities strip them of their racial privilege and leads them into the same cages. The verse ends off with a vitriolic attack on “pseudo-Christians” tolerating such inhumane policies, stating that “if even one scrap of what Jesus taught connected, you’d feel different”.
Mike then follows this with another astounding verse directly addressing not only police brutality and middle-class complacency, but the education and prison systems keeping African Americans limited in their options, before tying his verse back to the same levelling Christian imagery as El-P, stating “all of us serve the same masters, all of us nothin’ but slaves. Never forget in the story of Jesus the hero was killed by the state.” Both rapper’s arguments are remarkably clear headed and concise given the clearly simmering rage they each belie, and it’s all stitched together with a tremendous hook from Gangsta Boo of Three 6 Mafia.
“Early” – Run the Jewels 2
A corrupt judicial system is hardly a recent addition to the themes of Run the Jewels music though. It became a central talking point in their work as overt politicism first began to pervade their output, becoming a recurring theme of the second album, where it is addressed most directly in the track “Early,” via an atypically simple structure with a single extended verse from each rapper. Both verses neatly accentuate their respective strengths, with Mike first going for the gut and pulling the listener in, telling a story of being violently arrested in front of his family despite his compliance, and pleas to spare his children the sight of their parents being held at gunpoint. El-P then follows with a more distanced and reflective, yet equally outraged verse giving a more abstract impression, employing free–flowing imagery of deception, fear and moral decay. It’s a potent track and a great example of their different ‘brains and brawn’ approaches to the mic.
Thieves (Screamed the Ghost) – Run the Jewels 3
Released in the immediate aftermath of the election of Donald Trump in 2016, Run the Jewel’s third album is far and away their darkest. It still boasts the same hilarious confidence and lyricism, but steeped in the acrid steam of El-P’s moody and atmospheric beats. In this context, the chilling track ‘Thieves (Screamed the Ghost)’ almost approaches the level of political horrorcore, depicting riots against authoritarian violence as the resurrection of the spirits of those it has killed: ‘so many years of this violence, now we’re surrounded by the souls of the dead and defiant’.
The low, wraithlike beat envelops the cold, stubborn delivery of Mike and El-P, who sound more alike than ever on this project, both reigned in by a numbing, throbbing anger, murmuring out their lyrics with forced restraint, as they state: ‘fear’s been law for so long that rage feels like therapy’. By the time the track closes out with the haunting words of Martin Luther King endorsing rioting as a form of protest and condemning the state forcing such tactics onto the populace, the murdered social leader’s words sound both timely yet painfully distant, far removed from the inspiring context his words are usually placed in.
Panther Like a Panther – Run the Jewels 3
Along with the judiciary system, the Church has long been another favourite target for Run the Jewels, especially for El-P, whose attacks on religious hypocrisy and abusive Catholic priests are laced throughout their discography. ‘Panther Like a Panther’ however doesn’t so much play that angle, instead taking a more absurdist and purely sacrilegious approach, laden with profanity and raunchy sexual imagery, the track is a rare moment of pure headbanging fun within the doom laded Run the Jewels 3, and a much needed respite from the album’s heaviness.
Sea Legs – Run the Jewels
Many of Run the Jewels’ best and most memorable tracks are centred around single metaphors and scenarios that both rappers are able to riff on and pull ideas out of in different ways. One of the earliest examples is this track from their first album, portraying their hard work and hard partying through the concept of ‘sea legs’, and watery imagery approaching the existential. It’s also one of the most instantly catchy songs in the duo’s discography, with a multi-layered hook, soaring guitars, whining synths, a sporadic drum pattern and echoing snaps that perfectly mirror El-P’s ‘slow water drip to the temple’ line. It’s also a bold move in any context to drop lines dissing Kanye West and Jay-Z, particularly in 2012 when both where riding high off their Watch the Throne collaboration. That doesn’t stop Killer Mike from taking shots at them though, offering ‘no respect for thrones’, referring to them as parrots and describing himself as their ghostwriter’s ghostwriter.
Job Well Done – Run the Jewels
The debut album immediately follows ‘Sea Legs’ with another highlight, the self-congratulation anthem ‘Job Well Done’, where the outfit inflates their egos over Until The Ribbon Breaks’ ethereal ‘didn’t we do well’ chorus. El-P’s verse here describing the build up of anticipation towards the release of their album is one of his most re-playable and laugh—out—loud funny ever, portraying it with apocalyptic imagery of religious leaders self-immolating in protest, animals turning on one another in the wild and mythical creatures emerging from seclusion just to buy the record themselves. It’s one phenomenal punchline after another, and the verse even includes a few more satirical shots against sexually abusive religious leaders and sports stars. Mike’s certainly no slouch either, slipping in some delicious quotables of his own, and the whole track is wonderfully grimy and consistently hilarious.
Close Your Eyes (and Count to F—k) – Run the Jewels 2
Run the Jewels 2’s assault on a corrupt and violent judicial system continues on “Close Your Eyes (and Count to F—K)” a song which I might propose, along with “Yankee and the Brave Pt. 4” to be the most definitively ‘Run the Jewels’ track the pair have ever dropped. El-P’s beat is built off a looped vocal line from Rage Against the Machine frontman Zach de la Rocha, that literally repeats the line “run them jewels fast”. Across the track’s four minute run the duo share bars about being thrown in prison, yelling at judges and chaplins and organising prison riots. The chemistry between the two rappers is absolutely explosive, delivering some of their most quotably revolutionary lyrics ever, alternating social comment with grand fury, and de la Rocha slots into their dynamic perfectly with a monstrous verse on the back end, finishing the track off with a devastating punch.
Crown – Run the Jewels 2
It’s rare that Run the Jewels move into a more emotional and introspective lane, but it does happen on occasion with tracks like “Down” or the fantastic “Pulling the Pin.” One of the most impactful examples is also one of their first forays into such a tone from their second album, “Crown,” which presents a poignant meditation from both rappers on the mistakes of their earlier lives. Mike reflects on his drug dealing days, particularly expressing regret over an instance when he sold drugs to a woman he knew to be pregnant, while El-P looks with disgust at his past service in the U.S. military that tried to warp him into a lesser, single-minded, violent man. It’s one of the most insightful and personal, as well as sombre and mature moments in the Run the Jewels canon.
Blockbuster Night Pt. 1 – Run the Jewels 2
Despite the quality of the initial Run the Jewels, many said that Run the Jewels 2 felt like the true coming of age of the pair and this track solidifies that notion, finding the duo at their meanest and leanest. One of their shortest tracks at only two minutes and thirty two seconds, it still manages to stack five killer verses, and some of their most hilariously brutal lines ever, a personal favourite being: “top of the morning, my fist to your face is f—cking Folgers,” while still slipping in cynical social comment from El-P: “any cow that is sacred will get defaced, like any tyrant murderer gets replaced, face it the fellows at the top are likely rapists”.
The track kicks off with a phenomenal rhyme scheme from Mike: “bunches and bunches, punches is thrown until you’re frontless, oodles and oodles, bang bullets at sucker’s noodles,” El-P then follows with a similar scheme, with spikier “I” and “E” vowel sounds, and brilliantly nihilistic lines like “it’s all a joke between mom contractions and coffin fittings”. As the Run the Jewels 2 leadoff single, it was the perfect, proud proclamation of their venomous return: “Last album? Voodoo! Proved that we was f—ckin’ brutal”, self-defining: “This Run the Jewels is: murder mayhem melodic music” and further promising a long run of stellar albums to come.