Run the Jewels: A Beginner’s Guide

With the Lollapalooza lineup finally coming out, it’s time to do some analysis. I don’t need to tell you to see big acts like Chance, Arcade Fire, and Blink (although without Tom DeLonge it’s hard to call this Blink), but I’d like to argue that you shouldn’t pass on what will likely be one of the best acts at the festival, Run the Jewels. 

Run the Jewels is currently hip-hop’s best duo, bar none – there are few modern rap acts who can rival their remarkable track record. What started as a passion project between two unlikely partners has transformed into a global fascination, combining visceral energy and undeniable chemistry for a result of critical and cultural acclaim.

I could talk all day about how much I love Run the Jewels and what they mean to me, but this isn’t a retrospective. This is a beginner’s guide to Run the Jewels, and a limited analysis of three of the best rap albums of the past decade. I’m going to summarize the records first, then provide some superlatives that might make the duo’s body of work less intimidating. If you’re looking for someone new to see, see Run the Jewels. Let’s begin.

Run the Jewels – 2013

The first project from the group is what you would expect a debut mixtape to be: a bunch of individually great songs that lack cohesion. But honestly, sometimes an album doesn’t need a theme or overall message to be great, and that’s what makes Run the Jewels flourish. While not as politically charged as their later two projects, the wordplay and flows on this album give us a taste of the full potential that they will soon reach. The beats are handled by the god El-P himself, a violent reminder of why he’s such a legendary producer. The style isn’t quite perfected here, but it’s a good precursor for what’s to come. Whether you think Killer Mike or El-P is the better lyricist is up to you, as they’re both incredibly capable. A great introduction album that quickly became one of underground hip-hop’s best projects.

Essential Tracks: “36” Chain,” “DDFH,” “Get It,” “Sea Legs,” “No Come Down”

Run the Jewels 2 – 2014

I remember eagerly anticipating this one. After discovering Run the Jewels and exhausting the first album, I needed more. When it finally dropped, I loved it, but didn’t make it much farther than the first few listens. It’s nothing against the album at all, because Run the Jewels 2 is a clear upgrade from the first album. The lyrics are much, much angrier and politically charged, tackling issues from police brutality to drug abuse, and along with the atmospheric production, it’s undeniable that Run the Jewels 2 is much more cohesive in both its messages and themes. In my opinion, however, Run the Jewels 2 track list is far less versatile than those of its predecessor and successor, making it my least favorite Run the Jewels album. But even with that being said, Run the Jewels 2 is still a fantastic project.

Essential Tracks: “Jeopardy,” “Blockbuster Night Part 1,” “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck),” “Early,” “Crown,” “Love Again (Akinyele Back)”

Run the Jewels 3 – 2016

RTJ fans got an early Christmas miracle when Run the Jewels 3 was released a month earlier than expected, leaving myself and other fans ecstatic. I won’t keep it a secret; RTJ3 is their best project to date. To me, it’s a mix of what makes both the first and second albums so great in their own rights: the tracks are playable at any moment, but the album maintains an overall cohesion. Each track seamlessly transitions to the next, but even so, you can enjoy the singles outside of their intended context. The production is probably the most unique of the three albums, with El-P sampling just about anything he could think of. (This album also gets bonus points for including the phrases “Excusez-moi bitches” and “Kumbaya, bitch”). The wordplay is both hilarious and socially conscious, calling out everyone from Donald Trump to racists to fucking Don Lemon of all people. There really isn’t a bad thing to say about RTJ3, you just need to listen to it.

Essential Tracks: “Talk to Me,” “Legend Has It,” “Stay Gold,” “Call Ticketron,” “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost),” “Everybody Stay Calm,” “Hey Kids [Bumaye]”

~~~

Best Opening Track: “Jeopardy” – RTJ2

Without a doubt the best opening track out of the three projects, “Jeopardy” is the anthem of Run the Jewels’ return. The beat is absolutely filthy, starting off barren and progressively layering instruments to create a lush and jazzy beat. The lyrics are furious, letting people know not to mess with El-P and Killer Mike. The abrupt ending to the track is the cherry on top.

Best Feature: Zack De La Rocha, “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” – RTJ2

Run the Jewels make liberal use of instrumental features throughout their discography (BOOTS, Travis Barker, and Kamasi Washington), but their lyrical counterparts are just as capable. While Big Boi on “Banana Clipper” or Danny Brown on “Hey Kids (Bumaye)” could have taken this spot, there really was no other person I could give it to than Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack De La Rocha, whose charged snarl can be heard both over the beat and within it. His chaotic, frantic energy is perfect for Mike and El, who can be tough to match in that category. That’s one way to do a feature.

Most Consistent Album: RTJ3

The most recent Run the Jewels easily takes this spot, simply because each song is amazing in its own right without undermining the album as a whole. The way I look at it is this: RTJ has some great classic tracks but the shortcomings of the album (and brevity) outweigh the good, while RTJ2 has the most cohesive atmosphere of the three, but it sort of falls apart in the second half. With RTJ3, again, you get the best of both worlds, even though the lesser tracks  bring it down a bit (and “Down” is definitely the worst opening track of the three projects). Luckily, the stretch of “Talk to Me” through “Everybody Stay Calm” is so good it doesn’t even matter.

Best Beat:

  • RTJ – “Get It”: The catchiest beat off of the first Run the Jewels album. “Get It” is a RTJ song that never gets old to me, and that is thanks in large part to the simple but excellent beat.
  • RTJ 2 – “Crown”: Even with this comparatively bare beat, the guitar work from Diane Coffee is one of the album’s instrumental highlights.
  • RTJ 3 – “Legend Has It”: “And the crowd goes: RTJ. This beat is all over the place, which is what makes it so great. The variation on each part of the track is fantastic, and how can you not love a Nature Boy Ric Flair sample?

Most Underrated Track:

  • RTJ – “No Come Down”: With all the single power of the first record, this song can get lost in the mix. Consider this a gentle reminder that both verses from Killer Mike and El-P are great, and the beat is also eerie and fantastic.
  • RTJ 2 – “Early”: One of RTJ2’s darker tracks, “Early” talks about police brutality and is more of a story than a song. Nevertheless, the haunting chorus from BOOTS on this track cements it as one of the album’s best tracks.
  • RTJ 3 – “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)”: With a beat that sounds straight out of an old school Mario game, “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)” is going to be overlooked in the plethora of great tracks on RTJ3. But even with the weird rhyme schemes on every verse, this song remains a favorite of mine for the Don Lemon callout I mentioned. 

Best Track:

  • RTJ –  “Get It”: This is one of my favorite RTJ songs period, so its place as RTJ’s best track is rightfully earned. Some of the best lines in their entire discography are on here, and the second half of the song is just fantastic. A classic.
  • RTJ 2 – “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”: I can’t get enough of this song, and it’s one of the only songs from RTJ2 that I’ll play anytime. The beat is just too great, and not one verse on the song is a slouch. A modern day Zack De La Rocha verse was also something I was anticipating, and I already discussed his feature, so just scroll back up and listen to the song if you skipped it.
  • RTJ 3 – “Everybody Stay Calm”: I don’t know what it is, but this beat belongs in a secret agent video game. I love the techno vibe that El-P puts on this track; it’s just so eerie and haunting. Even though I put “Call Ticketron” as my favorite track from this album in my Top 25 Albums of 2016, that was just after a quick reaction as the album came out literally the day I wrote it. “Everybody Stay Calm” doesn’t have a single bad verse, and some of the samples on it are just outstanding, making it my favorite song off of RTJ3.

Hopefully after reading this you do yourself a favor and listen to some of the RTJ discography. They truly are one of hip-hop’s best currently, and have been killing every live show they’ve done on their “Run the World” Tour. If you do go and see them at Lollapalooza or any of the other multitude of festivals they are at, be prepared to be blown away.

Written by Max Borushek

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