Editor’s Note: Shining a light on the more prominent artists of the passing decade; we’ll be taking a look at the artists who made a monumental impact on the 2010s and landed several albums in our 200 Best Albums Of The 2010s list in a series of pieces through the end of 2019. Today we’re taking a look at Run The Jewels with Kat Bein. The Discogs Community spoke loud and clear, placing the Killer Mike and El-P brotherhood’s entire 2010’s run of LPs in the top half of our list. The evolution of RTJ over these three albums is especially exciting, and we can’t wait to see what the 2020s bring from the duo!
In times of political upheaval, poets, storytellers, and musicians become barometers of society. The 2010s were a decade of commercial excess and greed. It started high on the hope that things could change only to end in bitter darkness and confusion. All the while, popular culture sold stories of endless youth, fabulous drug addiction and egotistical overindulgence, but the success of underground rap super-duo Run The Jewels dares to tell another, more honest story.
Brooklyn-born rapper-producer El-P made his name on daring beats and unrelenting lyrics via four solo records in the 2000s. Killer Mike is an Atlanta rapper of the Dungeon Family set with activism in his blood. The pair were introduced by an executive of the Cartoon Network, whose Adult Swim programming championed experimental musicians. After some studio collaborations and a co-headlining stint on the road, the pair decided to make their relationship official, naming their team project “Run The Jewels” after a line in an LL Cool J song.
RTJ introduced itself as the anti-hero antidote to “go dumb” radio rappers. The project’s willingness to innovate, attention to detail, diabolical storyline and raw style made RTJ instantly exciting to fans and impossible to imitate. El-P’s frenetic and futuristic beats made from retro synths sounds lit the stage for aggressive bars spit in twisted flows.
RTJ takes its cues from the godfathers of gangsta rap, takes no prisoners and leaves no survivors in its wake, but the real lesson at the heart of the project is to let love rule. It’s an east coast assault on anyone who uses fear to intimidate and dishonesty to distract the masses. Inspired by the world around it, RTJ grew more political over time, creating one of the most important voices in the fabric of 2010 popular music.
Some critics and fans might not see RTJ albums as the best of either MCs catalogs, but the group made each of its members bigger stars than they ever were apart. The Discogs Community speaks loudly with all three Run The Jewels albums on the list of the decade’s best by their record collections. Let’s take a closer look at each below.
Released in June of 2013 on Fool’s Gold Records, RTJ’s debut self-titled LP is savage, witty, wicked and wise. With sparse features from Outkast icon Big Boi and old school rap guru Prince Paul, Run The Jewels sent the message that the duo only hangs with heavy hitters but doesn’t need their help to make an impression. It’s an aggressive pitbull of a record that starts big and bossy with a self-titled track full of classic rap braggadocio and lines to let you know Run The Jewels doesn’t play. The devilish duo came to steal the crown from the kings of the game and leave smoking holes in the heads of non-believers. They are the ganja-smoking saviors of real rap, taking shots at commercial giants (like Kanye and Jay Z) who only worship at the feet of classics (Method Man, Run DMC, N.W.A.). It’s ten original tracks (and three bonus tunes) mostly serve to create the RTJ legend, though “DDFH,” meaning Do Dope Fuck Hope, points at an underlying desire for cultural commentary. From cannibalism to cock-slapping, nothing is lyrically off-limits, but it’s all laced with harmless hilarity. No one is really in danger except for posers and capitalists.
The album was a successful start, reaching No. 60 on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart and voted by Discogs’ users as the 49th best album of the decade. All hail the new rulers of the underground.
Fueled by the success of their debut and inspired by the changing world around them, El-P and Killer Mike returned quickly and with a spit-spewing menace on 2014’s sophomore cut Run The Jewels II. Here, the tracks are louder featuring lusher, more layered production. It’s a raucous rabble-rouser with a keen eye and an educated tongue honed on a growing political crisis. Mike became a voice of the Black Lives Matter movement, speaking to news outlets about the violence in Ferguson, MI., and he waves that flag proudly on “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck” featuring Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha. RTJ takes on violence against minorities, corrupt politicians, CEOs, and religious pedophiles while uplifting the impoverished masses punished by the system for dealing drugs or doing whatever they have to meet their ends. “Lie, Cheat, Steal” is a stand-out that calls out the shady figures who run the world while encouraging the people to find their power. The record moves in thoughtful ebbs and flows, serving maniacal beats on “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry,” emotive beauty on “Early” feat. BOOTS, and naughty swagger on XXX favorite “Love Again” with Gangsta Boo. The LP also features drums by Blink-182 icon Travis Barker on “All Due Respect,” and indie artist Diane Coffee on “Crown.”
It’s a musical pinnacle wherein RTJ accepts its social purpose and finds an ultimate, experimental groove. It jumped to No. 9 on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop Album chart and cracked the overall albums chart at No. 50. It’s the highest on Discogs’ fan-voted list, landing at No. 33 of the best albums of the decade.
RTJ creates its grand epic with a 14-track soundscape. Run The Jewels III is an interesting beast that finds the former underdogs proud kings of radioresistance. El-P and Killer Mike are not household names, but having played the stage at Madison Square Garden (as an opening act for Jack White), they can’t pretend to be underground unknowns any longer. Instead of cash in on successful tropes, the band pushes itself toward grandeur without dreaded bloat. The group told reporters it is their favorite album, although a downturn in general energy may explain why it polls lower on Discogs’ list.
It opens not with a smashing scream but with the soft intro “Down.” It takes stock of where its members have been, the heights they’ve reached and where they’ve yet to go. El-P’s production is often half-tempo and ethereally cinematic. Killer Mike once said, “I see this album, I don’t hear this album,” making a note of its theatricality. Each song plays evenly into the next, with a healthy mix of the group’s boisterous brags and political messaging. The true power of this dynamic duo is felt during the live performance, and this third self-titled installment captures this spirit on early tracks “Legend Has It” and “Call Ticketron.” Those are highlights among an otherwise more downtrodden mood, perhaps caused by Trump’s divisive presidency. The duo continues to preach power-to-the-people on “Bumaye,” “Don’t Get Captured,” “Thieves! (Screamed The Ghosts” and “2100” feat. BOOTS, while spreading a message of love over true evil on “Stay Gold” and the very-personal “Thursday In The Danger Room.” RTJIII sees more features than ever, with Danny Brown, Joi, Trina, Tunde Adebimpe, Kamasi Washington and returning cast members BOOTS and Zack de la Roche. The album charted higher than its predecessors at No. 13 on the Billboard 200.
In just less than seven years, Run The Jewels emerged as one of the most unique and important rap groups in the genre’s history, making a huge impression on this past decade. All the proof you need is in the music, which speaks for itself, but we’d be remiss not to mention the thoughtful artwork on each record sleeve. In an interview with Spin around RTJIII‘s release, the group explained the iconic zombie hands motif as follows:
“For us, the RTJ1 hands were about “taking what’s yours” – your world, your life, your attitude. The RTJ2 hands were wrapped in bandages, signifying injury and healing, which for us represented the growth in ideas and tone of that album. For RTJ3 the bandages are off, the chain is gone and the hands have been transformed into gold. For us, this represents the idea that there is nothing to take that exists outside of yourself. You are the jewel.”
Run The Jewels IV has been confirmed in the works. What new mountains of truth and justice will Run The Jewels climb in the 2020s? With no shortage of political unrest and corporate greed in sight, it will be unrelenting and unforgettable, to be sure.