Not many debut albums have had the impact that Run The Jewels‘ eponymous debut album enjoyed. Released three years ago today, it remains one of the most important hip-hop records of the last decade; not only for its incredible production and lyrics, which covered so much ground that it playfully tackled sex and drugs as seamlessly and relevantly as it discussed crucial political and social issues, but for its importance in the careers of two artists who, until moment, were considered at the top of the underground scene. This album catapulted both Killer Mike and El-P out of the underground and into mainstream success, and the past three years have seen them travel from strength to strength, be it having friends in high places, having one of the year’s most anticipated albums, roping in every great producer imaginable to remix a cat album and much, much more.
Prior to Run The Jewels, both artists had achieved great success on their own paths, but coming together is what stepped it over the line.
Since his first official feature on Outkast’s Stankonia in 2000, Killer Mike built a solid reputation for himself as a lyrical MC, one of the foremost voices coming out of Atlanta, with a lot to say and even more ways to say it. He released five solo albums before RTJ officially started – his final to date has been the outstanding 2012 album R.A.P. Music, which was entirely produced by El-P after the pair were introduced in 2011 by Jason DeMarco from cartoon TV network Adult Swim. El-P not only produced but guested on Butane (Champion’s Anthem), and obviously laid the foundations for what would later become Run The Jewels.
El-P, meanwhile, was behind one of the underground scene’s most important labels, Def Jux, under which he released music from his own ex-group Company Flow, alongside Cannibal Ox, early Aesop Rock, Del the Funky Homosapien, RJD2, Camu Tao (RIP), self-featuring supergroup The Weathermen and many more. He’d also been releasing solo albums since 2002’s wonderful Fantastic Damage, which he continued to do after the label eventually folded around 2010.
El-P’s final solo album also came out in 2012, the equally lauded Cancer 4 Cure, on which Killer Mike also featured on Tougher Colder Killer. With both albums in fact dropping less than two weeks apart, the pair took the show on the road as a double headline tour. Each artist would take turns playing first, with the pair joining forces on stage at the end of their sets. This clearly sparked an unstoppable wildfire, as they officially came together and released Run The Jewels on June 26, 2013.
It is nothing short of incredible to see two middle-aged men swoop in and not only release the most strongly received album of their respective careers, but of hip-hop in general. RTJ and its sequel, Run The Jewels II, are both phenomenal. Not only do they address many important topics alongside the more traditional hip-hop subjects, but they’re catchy at fuck and brilliantly produced by the legendary El-P.
From the first verse of the self-applauding, self-titled opening track, it’s clear that something serious is bubbling: “Oh dear what the fuck have we here?” El-P quizzes. “These motherfuckers all thorn no rose / Oh shit what the hell have we done? / It’s alive and it’s hungry as fuck / Better hide all the snacks and the dough / It is out of my control, you are shit out of luck /I don’t wanna be unfair but the pair we got beat that weak shit you got.”
From there, we visit the Big Boi-featuring Banana Clipper, 36″ Chain, DDFH (Do Dope Fuck Hope), Sea Legs and beyond. Each track takes turns introducing us to the many faces and the beautiful dichotomy that is Run The Jewels: weed, psychedelics and women, (El:“I drive at illegal speeds, keep an oz in my pocket”) neatly tucked in besides crucial socio-political commentary (KM: “Cops in the ghetto they move like the Gestapo, drunk off their power and greed, they often hostile / My little homie talked shit back and they beat him bad, that boy in the hospital now he’s lookin’ bad”), threaded together with clever wordplay (El: “Never met a word that I wouldn’t like a weapon just brandish”), more than a few sci-fi and comic book references (KM: “It’s time for Skywalker talk cause meet the true Darth Vader”) and self-love, bigging each other up to no end (KM: “Producer gave me a beat, said it’s the beat of the year, I said El-P didn’t do it so get the fuck outta here!“) (El: “If you come straight from New York you relate, if you come straight from another place stay tuned /Me and Mike got the whole map held safe”).
One of my personal favourite RTJ songs are album closer, the darkly festive A Christmas Fucking Miracle. Often used in their live sets, the haunting, piano-laden track talks about staying true to yourself. El-P breaks down the concrete jungle and the man getting you down (“The most impressionable minds get molested and informed by manipulating forces /Don’t fret little man, don’t cry, they can never take the energy inside you were born with“) while Mike speaks of preferring savages to the pre-informed “powers that be”, (“Told us they ain’t take us out if we bow to our knees
But they can give that to the kings and the queens… Cause I would rather be in the jungle with the savages,“) before shouting out Ice Cube (“Still spell Amerikkka with a triple K“) and those who have fallen (“Rest in peace to Pimp C and Camu, too, we do it all for you”). It’s all only embellished by this incredible music video:
The production is varied and remarkably engaging; from the hand-clapping rhythm and warbling, dystopic atmosphere of the anti-Big Pharma beat DDFH, to the understated slink of No Come Down, with Killer Mike’s low-slinging verse about drug-fuelled sexual experiences.
Widely considered one of the strongest, most relevant voices in hip-hop today, Run The Jewels have been praised by many of their contemporaries, including Kendrick Lamar, Talib Kweli and Nas, as well as the music industry as a whole, with many publications voting RTJ and RTJ2 among the best releases of their respective years.
As we eagerly await for Run The Jewels 3, I recommend not only revisiting their previous two albums, but to listen to Nobody Speaks, their collaboration with DJ Shadow, which might just be my favourite song of 2016 so far, and each artist’s stellar pre-RTJ catalogue. The pair also debuted a brand new song called Scenes at Coachella, and while this is yet to see the light of CDQ day, we assume it will either feature on the album, or it may be an early version of their Adult Swim single, which will be released at some point in the next couple months.
As brilliant, biting and relevant as event, celebrate three years of Run The Jewels by listening to one of the decade’s best albums: