2013 was a big year for hip hop. Kanye West and J. Cole released an album on the same day. Danny Brown and Pusha T released an album on the same day. Jay Z dropped an album that was platinum before it was even released. Eminem, Drake, A$AP Rocky, A$AP Ferg, Tyler the Creator, Kid Cudi, Earl Sweatshirt, Childish Gambino, and Chance the Rapper all released projects that year. Safe to say that there was a lot of genuinely good rap albums and projects to consume. Fortunately, I did not allow the self-titled debut album of Run the Jewels – a duo consisting of seasoned rappers, El-P (also a very accomplished producer) and Killer Mike, that I had no prior knowledge about – to pass me by. I noticed the critical acclaim and traction that they were pulling and decided to download the free project to see what the hype was all about.
Their first track, also titled “Run The Jewels”, blew my goddamn mind and I immediately played it back again. El-P and Killer Mike started the new chapter of their careers with a nuclear bomb. “Cowering like cowards cowering in concrete showers in Rikers Island.” “I’m a sin on a verse like a kid in a hearse or a nun in a cumshot.” Lines like these come throughout the whole project and hit like Mike Tyson haymakers each and every time. The production was consistently aggressive from the first track to the last. The album was not perfect, as certain songs on the project sounded a little to similar to others, but there were still many songs that everyone should listen to immediately, such as “Sea Legs”, “Get It”, and “A Christmas Fucking Miracle”. Not many albums contain tracks constantly coming at you with fire the whole way through. If I had one concern going into their next album, it was if they could keep up this aggressive hard hitting pace again. Would they continue their forceful energy or move in a different direction? The answer: Both.
Run The Jewels 2 doubled down on their tenacity while lifting their chemistry to heights that I did not expect. It also seemed like they focused their lyrics more on substantial matters such as police violence and religion, while their first album was more along the lines of simply being braggadocious. “Early” contains superb storytelling that details the struggle with police brutality that minorities continue to face, with Killer Mike and El-P coming from different perspectives to describe the inequality and prejudice taking place throughout the country. That’s not to say that they don’t talk their shit on RTJ2. Killer Mike literally starts the whole thing off yelling “I’M GONNA BANG THIS BITCH THE FUCK OUT!” The production was fierce again yet in a unique way where no songs sounded similar. Each track stuck out and left a mark on its own. “Blockbuster Night Part One” will have you going 105 mph without you even realizing it. “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” loops Zack de la Rocha (Rage Against the Machine frontman) into the beat and then gives him the final verse, where he immediately makes you ask when he is coming with his own solo project. Whether you are a hip hop fan or not, this is an album that I truly believe fans of any genre could at the very least appreciate. 2014 was known for being a pretty lame year as far as hip hop releases go, but Run The Jewels 2 was a true gem among the trash.
Over 2 years passed until they dropped the next sequel. While I still believe to this day that Run The Jewels is underappreciated and deserves to be on major hip hop radio stations consistently (music that deserves to be on the radio is a topic for a different time), the hype once again seemed to have reached impossible levels. I was not concerned about the direction they would take like last time; it was known that they were going to drop a project that would shatter the minds of their loyal following and newcomers alike. After the longest break between two of RTJ’s projects, they finally released their 3rd album on Christmas Eve of 2016. Run The Jewels continued their habit of surpassing expectations with banger after banger after banger. If you couldn’t tell so far, one of the more remarkable things I find about RTJ is the fact that they keep on attacking with insane beats and even wilder lyrics for their entire discography without getting stale; in fact, they get stronger and stronger with each record, as their chemistry flourishes and they become more experimental. For example, on Run The Jewels 3 their first track starts relatively calm compared to their previous works. The track is not even over before beat switches and they get back to the fire they are known for. “Brave men didn’t die face down in the Vietnam mud so I could not style on you.” “I didn’t walk uphill both ways to the booth and back to not wild on you”. “You think Baby Jesus killed Hitler just so I’d whisper?” Those dominant lines are all on one song, “Talk To Me”. The production this time around was more experimental, with unique beats that only El-P would be capable of creating. RTJ3 also had the strongest features out of the three albums, with Zack de la Rocha making another appearance at the final track, Trina adding to the energy of “Panther Like A Panther”, and Danny Brown absolutely destroying everything in sight on “Hey Kids (Bumaye)”. “Word architect, when I arch the tech, I’ll part ya neck.” Insane. “Legend Has It”, “2100”, “Oh Mama”, and “Stay Gold” are some other standout tracks, with “2100” being a nice take on our current political climate. “Don’t Get Captured” also speaks on violence with police officers again, with El-P going with the bold choice of rapping from the perspective of the assaulting officer, and it pays off. Once again, this is a project that no matter what your tastes in music are, you will appreciate it. El-P and Killer Mike found a way to have a consistently aggressive sound while continuing to evolve as artists.
While still fairly recent, RTJ’s sound is unique, and in a few years time will be considered timeless. Becoming one of the top rap duos or groups in hip hop history is no small task. A Tribe Called Quest, Clipse, Mobb Deep, Outkast, and Wu-Tang Clan are the standouts to me, and I do not hesitate to add Run The Jewels to that list. They have not missed yet; furthermore, RTJ2 and RTJ3 were among the top albums of their respective years, if not THE top album. They have experimental production, powerful lyricism, and exhilarating energy that will not grow old. RTJ has a loyal following and a purpose, and with all these tools at their disposal they will continue their reign. We will look back on their work and realize that we were witnessing history.