Run the Jewels is my favorite rap group of all time.
This is not a slight to the revolutionary virtues of N.W.A or Public Enemy, nor to the empowering intellect and attitude of the Wu-Tang Clan or A Tribe Called Quest, but a testament to the raw strength of this decade’s catchiest hooks and one-liners, as seen in the lyrics and production of Killer Mike and El-P.
At the end of February, I had the pleasure of going to their second of four sold-out New York shows, at the behemoth of a venue known as Terminal 5. Although we’re only three months in, I can say with complete certainty that this will go down as my favorite live performance of 2017.
Run the Jewels brought a level of energy, empowerment and straight-up fun that I’ve rarely seen in live performance and have never seen at a rap show before.
Although Run the Jewels consists of two rappers and a DJ, it’s difficult to see them as their own personas. The production, especially El-P and Killer Mike’s jabs and trade-off lines, flow so seamlessly, whether it be song or in-between dialogue, that the unit effectively feels like it’s under complete neurologic connectivity.
Without needing to say more than a minute’s worth of dialogue about an invitation sent to President Obama to attend the show, “RTJ,” as they’re so affectionately chanted by 3,000 obsessive fans, intrinsically has anger at power structures, and therefore politics, as a center of their lyrical content. This translates well to their live performance, as without any provocation, a “Fuck Donald Trump” chant broke out multiple times.
Of course, none of this can compare to the actual moment of RTJ coming out of the gate, triumphantly taking the stage to another 3,000 of the 12,000 tickets sold in New York to Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” in a sea of lights from all corners of the stage.
What came next was what I think are the best trio of songs RTJ has ever made, one into another, from this year’s Run the Jewels 3, without any breaks or slowing down. They started with the impactful “Talk to Me,” which starts out with a sly Donald Trump call-out in the form of the first few lines:
We return from the depths of the badland
With a gun and a knife in our waistband
Went to war with the Devil and Shaytan
He wore a bad toupee and a spray tan
This is followed by the one-two-punch hitter of a beat of “Legend Has It,” which shows the strength of Mike and El’s trading off of verses that no other modern rap group has ever been able to do with this level of uniformity. They finished their opener with the absolutely infectious “Call Ticketron,” sampling the sounds of 1990s Madison Square Garden advertisements with a repetition of “Run the Jewels: live at the Garden,” to stand loud and say: “We have made it. We are the voices of this era of rap.”
The rest of the show was no different. Powerful triplets of hits from Run the Jewels 3 and Run the Jewels 2, all of which were followed with intelligent, poignant and insightful back and forth laughter, playful insults and brief philosophic moments between Killer Mike and El-P.
They closed with their first record’s self-titled “fist-and-gun” anthem track, “Run the Jewels,” before returning to encore with “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck),” starting off with a sample of Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha yelling out the duo’s name with a feeling of overthrowing masters that only the guy who sang “Bulls on Parade” can pull of. The very last song of the evening was Run the Jewels 3’s opener, “Down,” an interesting choice that subtly says that Run the Jewels will never be a musical unit stuck on a “hit” in the past, but a dynamic force that will continuously be creating their “best album yet.”
At one point, Killer Mike looked into the crowd and just shouted, “Smile. Smile! Smile!” and when it comes down to it, that’s the essence of a Run the Jewels show. While most modern rap groups feel a need to conform to a certain aesthetic these days, RTJ isn’t afraid to have fun. At times they’re hard, at others they’re funny, at others they’re heroes, but all in all, RTJ is about having a good time, while not being afraid to get angry and speak out at the power structures of the world.
And that’s what makes them the best. Doing something so simple, but everybody else is afraid of doing.