Run the Jewels is one of my favorite rap groups, and I I thought I’d rank the best tunes from their first three albums.
For those unfamiliar, RTJ is technically a supergroup, as both rapper/producer El-P and rapper Killer Mike worked independently for many years before joining forces. It’s in this unholy union, known as Run the Jewels, that they have finally found mainstream popularity, and we are all the better for it.
Here are their ten best songs:
(Their music is decidedly not safe for work, by the way.)
10. Oh My Darling (Don’t Cry)
The high quality lyricism of the two rappers of RTJ stays relatively consistent over their three albums, but El-P’s production just seems to get better and better with time. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Oh my Darling Don’t Cry, off RTJ2. Twisting a Field Hippies sample into the backbone of a frenetic beat, El’s production steals the show.
El: My business card says “You’re in luck/ I do two things, I rap and f***”.
9. Chase Me
Technically not a Run the Jewels song, but a Run the Jewels feature, this song was too good not to include. A breezy, fun throwback to the 90’s heyday of rap movie theme songs, Chase Me delivers on all fronts. It has a couple great rap verses that have little to do with the movie’s story, a video that awkwardly inserts the rappers into random scenes from the movie, and a hook loosely based around the movie’s title. It’s got everything you want from a rap theme song. And when you think about it, Run the Jewels was a natural choice for Baby Driver. They already sound like the soundtrack to a car chase.
El: I’m running reds till I’m out of this town baby/ You want your money back?/ Chase me.
8. Lie, Cheat, Steal
A thing I like about El-P’s production is it’s ability to be both darkly ominous and energetic. It’s not El’s beat work that steals Lie Cheat Steal however, but both rapper’s incredible rhythm. Mike and El go wild on the beat, but make it all look effortless. With a killer hook, a great beat, and two fantastic verses, Lie Cheat Steal is a certified banger. Even Mike’s weird-ass conspiracy theory about Donald Sterling can’t derail it.
Mike: A revoultionary bangin’ on my adversaries/ And I love Dr. King but violence might be necessary.
7. Blockbuster Night Part 1
Even if you were unfamiliar with them at the start of this list, you can probably tell by now that RTJ are not known for their subtlety. There are a few exceptions (some appearing later on in this list), but most Run the Jewels songs are collections of badass one liners. What makes RTJ special is the skill and persuasion in which these lines are constructed, and the brash energy in which they are delivered. Enter Blockbuster Night Part 1, boasting the least subtle hip-hop beat I’ve ever heard, no hook, and a two and a half minute run-time. And it’s still one of their best songs.
El: I deal in dirty work/ do the deed and then dash/ ditch ’em.
6. Legend Has It
Though I like when Mike and El have longer verses, I’m a big fan of the tag-team style they dig out once and a while. Legend Has It is probably their best song in this style, with Mike and El delivering at least one fantastic punchline in each of the songs 11(!) verses. I was not alone in being a fan of Legend Has It, and it was featured in the trailer for Marvel’s Black Panther, one of the most viewed movie trailers in Youtube history.
Mike: Your life can end like in Godfather 1/You get the gun as I christen my son.
5. Talk to Me
Though Legend Has It was the breakout single from the third Run the Jewels album, it’s Talk to Me that stands out as it’s best song. Lean and exhilarating, the rapper’s flow here is unparalleled, particularly El. I’ve never heard someone rap so fast while sounding so… relaxed. His verse sounds like he recorded it while leaning on a wall or something.
El: Brave men didn’t die face down in the Vietnam muck so I could not style on you/ I didn’t walk uphill both ways from the booth and back to not wil’ on you
Each of RTJ’s albums have a couple “serious” songs, and Crown is one of the best.
The theme is redemption, casting off the guilt of past mistakes in order to truly grow as a person. Mike tells an emotional story from his drug dealing days, when he sold cocaine to a pregnant woman, causing her child to develop brain damage. Whether or not Mike knew the woman was pregnant is left out, and I wish the severity of what he did was more clear, but the verse is more emotionally candid than I expected from Mike, and I really like it.
El’s verse is a little more vague, as he describes joining some sort of group that eroded his sense of identity. Is he talking about a gang? The military? A record label? It’s unclear, but the way he describes the mind set of belonging to a dangerous group is super compelling. If you’ve hated all the music in this list so far, I’d give Crown a shot. It’s a different kind of Run the Jewels Song.
Mike: I’ve been redeemed/ I found in Christ/ Whatever it takes I hope you find it, Mike.
3. Close Your Eyes (And Count to F***)
Former Rage Against the Machine front man Zach De La Rocha is the MVP of this track, providing a solid verse as well as a vocal sample that becomes the song’s killer hook. Sounding like the soundtrack to a futuristic anarchist revolution, this is RTJ at it’s most propulsive, and that’s really saying something. I also should shout the video, which is surprising and angry as hell.
De La Rocha: My battle status is burning mansions in dallas/ and malibu/ check my resume/ your residence is residue.
2. Run The Jewels
Run the Jewels has released a lot of great songs since they formed in 2013, but rarely do they top their explosive title track, the first song on their first album. Run the Jewels loudly and obnoxiously announced the groups arrival in hip-hop, and made it clear they weren’t messing around. As El says:
Oh s*** what the hell have we done/ it’s alive and it’s hungry as f***
1. A Christmas F***ing Miracle
If you disagree with this as the #1 choice I understand, and this is probably not the best RTJ song, but it is my favourite. Easily.
Despite the goofy video, it’s one of the aforementioned “serious songs”, and easily the best executed. In their respective verses, Mike and El address their rough childhoods, and explain their ethos in making music. For both of them, it appears to be rooted in anger.
The song goes far in explaining that the “f*** the system” lyrics in most RTJ songs come from somewhere deeply personal. Mike and El both witnessed vast inequality growing up, be it related to race, class, or both. In growing up in systems so deeply unfair, burning them down just makes the most sense (this also explains Mike’s endorsement of Bernie Sanders in the democratic primary).
I like Mike’s verse a lot, but El’s steals the show for me. At times he seems to be speaking directly to himself as a child, pushing himself to keep going. And his flow, my god.
This was the last song of the first Run the Jewels album, and I think both rappers could sense that this would be a major turning point in their careers. So they dedicated one song to reflecting on how far they’d come, and in doing so created their best track.
El: Don’t fret little man/ don’t cry/ they can never take the energy inside you were born with.