10 Best Songs

The 10 Best Run The Jewels Songs

Run The Jewels always made it easy to root for them. Two artists with very different backgrounds and milieus, joining together in their late 30s and, instead of functioning like a one-off or a curiosity, unlocking a whole new chapter of their lives. Two artists pushing each other to new heights, two men who found a new best friend in middle age. Two artists who were respected but seemed destined for perennial underdog status. And then, once they got together, everything changed — a casual experiment that led to crowd-pleasing victory laps and creative evolution. It’s a story everyone could get behind, and they did.

Jaime Meline, better known as El-P, and Michael Render, better known as Killer Mike, first met through a mutual friend, Adult Swim exec Jason DeMarco. At first, it was just about El producing Killer Mike’s next solo album — which became the great 2012 release R.A.P. Music. El-P released Cancer For Cure — which also featured an appearance from Mike — within weeks of R.A.P. Music, and the two toured together. Everything clicked: They hit it off, liked working together, decided to form a group. Run The Jewels’ self-titled album arrived the next year.

Run The Jewels was already a success story, a meeting of minds and voices that was adored by those that came across it, that was adored by everyone who saw the chemistry between El and Mike onstage after they’d smirkingly walk out to “We Are The Champions.” Then there was another one, Run The Jewels 2, a stunning level-up arriving just over a year later. RTJ2 came out and instantly dominated 2014. No longer was this a lark, a side gig before El and Mike went back to their own worlds. These guys were bonded, and they were making some of the best music of their careers.

There were so many reasons the newfound symbiosis of El-P and Killer Mike led to such transformation for both of them. At first, there was just a kind of delight to it all, these two guys pushing each other, trying to outdo each other’s shit talk, thinking of outlandish ways to reinvent dick jokes and use the word “fuck.” Run The Jewels albums felt like you were getting to hang with two skilled rappers who were just psyched to be in each other’s company, and those albums in turn overflowed with humor and charisma. And all of it took place over music that managed to bend expectations — one sonic experimentalist from New York and one preacher-like Southern rapper joining forces and coming up with a sound that was effusive and intense and honored old-school foundational rap tropes while subtly pushing into weirder, adventurous territory. It also helped that, even as hard and dark as some RTJ songs could get, so much of it was just pure catharsis. Whether you were working out, partying at a festival, heaving your entire body through a brick wall, or demolishing a skyscraper with your bare hands, the energy and muscularity of Run The Jewels made you feel like a superhero.

But something weird started to happen with Run The Jewels, too. Their albums began to come out at moments that would’ve been hard to predict, moments that made the albums feel not only prescient but all the more potent. RTJ2, which featured El-P and Killer Mike occasionally setting the punchlines aside to grapple with darker themes, arrived in a year marked by police killings and nationwide attention on unrest in Ferguson. Run The Jewels 3, its blearier and more anxious successor, dropped at the end of 2016, in the bleak holiday season between Trump’s election and inauguration. Each felt eerily tapped into their time, even when allowing for the idea that El and Mike were simply rapping about ills that had long plagued our society. As people outside of their songs, they too began to present a sort of exemplary personality you could look up to — two friends who had each other’s backs and tried to use their platform to speak sympathetically and sincerely about social issues in America.

For a moment, something else started to happen with Run The Jewels albums, too. Though there seemed to be no shortage of goodwill for the duo, their musical story seemed to be running out of fuel. You can’t just have this explosive accident and keep up that same electricity forever. The initial trio of Run The Jewels albums all came out between 2013 and 2016, three albums in three and a half years. A project that hadn’t existed half a decade ago had gone on something of a spree — churning out music, bursting with inspiration, and managing to keep that underdog story going even as you saw these guys get more and more of the acclaim they deserved. You were watching them win, and that just made you want to keep rooting for them even more.

But along the way, maybe we began to take them for granted. Each of those albums could trigger an initial endorphin rush — how could they have so many memorable jokes, how could El-P have this many beats that felt like straight adrenaline. Maybe partially because RTJ3 felt like a comedown conclusion to the trilogy, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that the distorted, industrial crunch of their music was carving out its own idiosyncratic lane within rap. It began to feel like comfort food. Now that the initial spark had run out and Run The Jewels was no longer a surprising insurgency, perhaps they were doomed to diminishing returns. Though still quite a ways short of a full-blown mainstream takeover, Run The Jewels had quickly become an establishment unto themselves.

Then, RTJ took a break — one just about as long as that initial, dizzying run of albums. When they returned with RTJ4 earlier this month, it was a reminder of what made us love this group in the first place — the kick-your-head-in production, Mike and El bouncing off each other, the continuing story of these two guys finding magic between the two of them and growing from the gleeful abandon of their earliest work to grappling with more serious concepts. Once more, RTJ4 arrived at the right time, but a strange time, as yet more police killings of Black men and women led to nationwide (and then worldwide) protests for racial justice that felt unprecedented. There were songs, like “Walking In The Snow” and “JU$T,” that seemed as if they had been written in the moment; again, it was simply a reminder that this is reality for so many people in America, and that these two were always trying to make sense of that. But whether you wanted to be angry, or whether you wanted to cry, or whether you needed to laugh for just a couple seconds, Run The Jewels had given us that again — an album big and brash and goofy and yet, cleansing.

So then, on the other side of the decade that birthed them, Run The Jewels made it easy to root for them all over again. They came back, and they reminded you how they could blend a few low-key avant-garde ideas with classic rap viewpoints, how the two of them were a bastion of creative partnerships and loyal friendships alike. On the occasion of their great new album and the long-awaited return of RTJ, we’re looking back at eight years of collaborations between Killer Mike and El-P — to celebrate the best songs they’ve made together, but maybe more importantly to celebrate a duo we never knew we needed, who then always show up just when we need them most.

10. “Down” (Feat. Joi) (From Run The Jewels 3, 2016)

Even with how quickly RTJ’s first three albums came out, RTJ3 struggled with some classic third album pitfalls — how to build on a well-established sound, how to experiment without weighing yourself down and losing what was special about your style in the first place. RTJ3 was an altogether mellower and more sprawling experience, smeared and airy even in its harder-hitting moments. Consequently, it’s one of the RTJ releases that works better as a full album experience — for the first time, they were making a mood for you to settle into, with less immediate highs.

That isn’t to say those peaks didn’t still exist, like the lurching stomp of eventual Black Panther trailer soundtrack “Legend Has It” or “Hey Kids (Bumaye),” a smart team-up with fellow weirdo outsider Danny Brown. But a few years later opener “Down” remains the album’s zenith. Built on production that sounded like swirling digitized smoke, Mike and El-P changed things up by opening an album with a more meditative approach. It proved that RTJ were capable of more than just gut-busting beats. They could adopt a sheen, and turn that gloss into something haunting.

9. “Nobody Speak” (From DJ Shadow’s The Mountain Will Fall, 2016)

The same year Run The Jewels would release their style-expanding third outing, they also linked up with DJ Shadow for a song that, at the time, felt somehow both deeply RTJ-ish and also unlike anything they’d done before. “Nobody Speak” showed RTJ no less impassioned than before, but still allowing themselves to be unabashedly funky. While the beat itself was something El and Mike might’ve worked with on their own, it felt different to hear them doing their usual shtick over fried guitar samples and big brass hooks. The collab turned out to be a fruitful one: One of the more insistent earworms associated with Run The Jewels, “Nobody Speak” became ubiquitous via commercials and syncs. As such, it sneakily became one of RTJ’s calling cards.

8. “Ooh LA LA” (Feat. Greg Nice & DJ Premier) (From RTJ4, 2020)

“Ooh LA LA” is something pretty different in RTJ’s body of work, and that’s partially because they couldn’t pull it off before. As El-P told Zane Lowe upon the track’s release: He’s had this sample in his head for years, claiming he had thought of it for each of their three preceding albums, but the duo could never afford to clear samples before. “Ooh LA LA” looks back to Gang Starr and Nice & Smooth’s “DWYCK“; El took one snippet of Nice’s verse and turned it into a monstrous chorus. (RTJ4 features another “holy shit” sample moment when “The Ground Below” turns Gang Of Four into Godzilla.)

Run The Jewels have had catchy songs before, but usually in the form of some gnarled beat that rattles around your ribcage. “Ooh LA LA” is somehow both RTJ going full classicist — sampling Golden Age rap to craft their own old-school track — and one of their poppiest moments yet. “Ooh LA LA” has a hook. And as much as it was exciting to have RTJ roaring back on these new songs, it was exciting in a different way to hear them be this loose, light, and fun. The collapse-of-capitalism dance party video doesn’t hurt either.

7. “A Few Words For The Firing Squad (Radiation)” (From RTJ4, 2020)

It’s not what they built their reputation on — in fact, it’s the opposite. Amidst all the bluster and towering beats, RTJ also have a way of ending their albums with atmospheric, reflective tracks. This goes all the way back to their debut, with the great “A Christmas Fucking Miracle.” And then, with RTJ4, they perfected the form.

The first couple times you listen to RTJ4 the whole way through, “A Few Words For The Firing Squad (Radiation)” can just totally wreck you. In some ways, the album feels as if it sits between the bombast of RTJ2 and the washed-out mechanism of RTJ3; the songs are tight and direct but often land heavier as the duo’s penchant for cataloguing injustice has sharpened. RTJ4, that is to say, isn’t always a fun listen to ignore in the backdrop — and “A Few Words” sits as a sort of apocalyptic, personal reckoning at the end of it all.

Above slashing string sounds and mournful saxophone, Mike and El trade urgent verses that take stock of their lives, the people they were and the people they’ve become, and the family around them then and now. Just as the music goes into a twilit stratosphere at the end of RTJ4, they give us one of their most human songs thematically. A lot of Run The Jewels songs make you want to destroy something, but “A Few Words” is the rare Run The Jewels song that makes you want to call home.

6. “Big Beast” (Feat. Bun B, T.I., And Trouble) (From Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music, 2012)

R.A.P. Music is inherently different than what came next — it’s still Mike’s show throughout, and so much of RTJ is driven by how these two play off each other’s personalities. But even if it wasn’t directly a rough draft for the first Run The Jewels, it’s definitely something of a prologue. This is where things started between El and Mike: the latter looking for a production style influenced by hard, old-school Ice Cube and Bomb Squad beats, the former able to draw on history and put it through a corroded cyber filter. R.A.P. Music had a relentless, powerful, scorched-earth sound, and it set the stage for where these two would go under the RTJ banner.

But at the time, this was still totally out of left field. The idea that Killer Mike was working with El-P was notable in and of itself, and then a song like “Big Beast” emerges from the partnership. T.I. of all people rapping over a clattering and propulsive El-P beat? This scenario was deeply unexpected in 2012.

It’s a marvel that “Big Beast” exists at all, and that’s before you get to Mike’s performance on this thing. Right out of the gate, he is setting the stakes for the album that follows; he’s ruthless and revitalized. There would be a whole lot more places to showcase this across R.A.P. Music and the four RTJ albums, but it’s still a thing of simple beauty to sit back and take in the aggressive relish Mike can bring to each syllable. “I don’t make dance music, this is R.A.P/ Opposite of the sucker shit they play on TV,” he’d proclaim at the end, but there might not be a single better part of the song than when he roars “Pow, motherfucker, pow!” and sounds so thunderous and percussive that he almost becomes one with the beat.

5. “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” (From Run The Jewels 2, 2014)

It’s not uncommon to see descriptions of El-P’s production as something akin to a robot having a nervous breakdown. There are plenty of RTJ songs that sound like a spastic, melted bit of machinery, but perhaps nothing pushes their music into full-blown spluttering computer madness as “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry.” The weird simmering hiss in the verses, the chopped and scrambled vocal garbles in the backdrop, the synth overdrive switch towards the end of the song — it’s easy to forget just how weird “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” is, because it’s one of the key examples of RTJ’s ability to corral complete chaos into grab-you-by-the-throat bangers. Maybe it helps when you have such visionary dismissals as “You can all run naked backwards through a field of dicks.”

4. “Run The Jewels” (From Run The Jewels, 2013)

As the opener of the self-titled debut and the song bearing the group’s name, “Run The Jewels” was a manifesto from the start. Basically, it’s the first, eruptive revelation of all the potential glimpsed on the earlier collabs between these two. Now, linked under their own name, they were beginning to figure out who they were as a duo. “Run The Jewels” doesn’t stomp quite like their biggest songs down the line — rather, it’s a squelchy rush, with Mike and El furiously trading lines back and forth. All these years later, it’s one of many theme song moments in their catalog, but one that has a lingering power. In all the little embellishments and the two flying off each other, you can hear the joy of them discovering that chemistry between them; you can hear the joy of a new era being born for both these artists.

3. “Yankee And The Brave (Ep. 4)” (From RTJ4, 2020)

Speaking of theme songs: RTJ returned from their long absence with a track that blew the doors down, a reintroduction that recaptured everything that works about their music while injecting it with a new fire. And they did that all within a song that, with the joke-y outro at the end of the album, bookends RTJ4 with the image of a TV show called Yankee And The Brave. It’s far from the first bit of self-mythologizing in RTJ’s career, and it’s not even really the first time they’ve positioned themselves as action heroes of some sort. But there was an undeniable vigor to, after all these years, Mike immediately proclaiming “Back at it like a crack addict” just before El’s beat crashed in.

Musically, “Yankee And The Brave” is the result of two guys who know what they do best, know what people are anticipating, and are wielding that knowledge. The little hints of funk and swagger within the beat give it this kind of prowling, intense build-up at the beginning of the album — circling their prey before going for the jugular when they finally, intensely, invoke the song’s title at the end. There have been a handful of other RTJ songs that blended all these aspects of their personas in the same way, but “Yankee And The Brave” is one of those instances that plays like a victorious return and refinement upon what came before at the same time.

2. “Blockbuster Night Part 1″ (From Run The Jewels 2, 2014)

“Blockbuster Night Part 1″ is, in a sense, where Run The Jewels fully became themselves. If it had been a one-off, the first RTJ would’ve remained a beloved cult concern, a surprisingly successful footnote. But now they were coming back, and the first order of business was to prove that as hard as Run The Jewels went, it had nothing on what these two could achieve now. “Blockbuster Night” is like they took all the corrosion of their earlier work and weaponized it, turning it into lean, mean bombast. The beat on the song sounds like you’re watching the beginning of an explosion over and over. It was a mission statement for what RTJ could really be: “We run a brand where destruction’s the number one commitment,” El-P promised.

Appropriately enough, “Blockbuster Night” found El and Mike spending a whole lot of time doing some classic shit-talking, underdogs coming back with a soon-to-be-massive sequel and telling other rappers they all suck. Accordingly, “Blockbuster Night” is full of lyrics that’d become signature RTJ lines. Killer Mike alone had “Top of the morning, my fist to your face is fucking Folgers,” “I probably smell like a pound when they put me in a coffin,” “I give a fuck if I’m late/ Tell Satan be patient.” It’s not exactly a novel concept within rap music to have songs telling everyone how awesome you are. But when Mike and El did it at the beginning of the RTJ2 era, they did it in a way that left no room for argument.

1. “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” (Feat. Zack De La Rocha) (From Run The Jewels 2, 2014)

The entire opening stretch of Run The Jewels 2 was jaw-dropping: the barely-controlled glitchiness of “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry,” the snarl of “Blockbuster Night,” and then… “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck).” If “Blockbuster Night” was in many ways the ideal realization of the RTJ prototype, “Close Your Eyes” was both a doubling down and mutation upon it. The nonsensical use of “fuck,” a muscular beat adorned by gurgling distortion, Mike and El alternating between their usual bravado and some social fury as Mike spends a verse imagining a prison uprising, a dose of Zach De La Rocha: “Close Your Eyes” has it all.

Part of it was by chance. El-P and Killer Mike ran into De La Rocha while they were out getting some juice during a break from the studio, as the story goes. El knew him from a while back, when he was supposed to work on De La Rocha’s still-never-materialized post-Rage solo debut. It was an event that he popped up on the track at all, but he also helped fuel the whole thing — it’s his evocation of the band’s title, chopped up into a constant and mind-numbing loop, that provides the backbone and pseudo-chorus of “Close Your Eyes.” And if you’ve ever seen them live when De La Rocha happens to pop up, you know that his final verse is like the last bit of ignition that fully sets the song off.

Now that we’ve known RTJ so long, and now that their second album rose to such a prominent position in the ’10s, it’s easy to forget just how mind-blowing this song was the first time you heard it. You had righteous Mike lines, like “We killin’ them for freedom ’cause they tortured us for boredom/ And even if some good ones die, fuck it, the Lord’ll sort ‘em.” You had a video featuring Shea Whigham and Lakeith Stanfield acting out a brutally balletic interpretation of police violence. You had another classic reiteration of the RTJ worldview with “A wise man once said, ‘We all dead, fuck it.'” You had De La Rocha appearing out of nowhere and saying things like “Philip AK Dickin’ you.” You had El-P’s mesmerizing production, a heaving and hypnotic thing that wouldn’t stop shaking you for its four minute duration.

“Close Your Eyes” was another one of those theme songs, the most insistent branding of the RTJ name and ethos. But it was also another one of those moments where El-P and Killer Mike balanced every aspect of their work together — the heaviness descending from looking to the outside world, the smiles elicited from their ever-more-creative ways of talking shit, the blistering bulldozer nature of their music together. There’s no better example of the power that could be conjured up once El-P and Killer Mike realized what they had unleashed together as Run The Jewels.

Listen to the playlist on Spotify.