Brothers-in-arms Run The Jewels return from their longest break yet to reveal the fruits of their labor – a masterclass in the social ills of the world and how to combat them.
‘An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.‘
If you want to know what I think about RTJ4, fine. It is, in the clearest sense, an album for the times, not to mention their best yet. That Killer Mike and El-P wrote this album over the last 18 months only for it to come out a week after the state-sanctioned murder of George Floyd – and on the week where millions of people mobilized on the streets to protest ceaseless police brutality (scores of whom have been injured as a result of even more police brutality, or even died), marching for Black lives, donating in the millions to justice-oriented organizations, and more than ever taking seriously the defunding of police and the destruction of the racist establishment that supports them – isn’t so much prophetic as it is proof that, really, nothing has changed. Yet.
RTJ4 shouldn’t be as heavily relevant – it sickeningly is. This album shouldn’t make us feel a very real pain steeped in systemic murder and unchecked state violence – it does. This is both its blessing and its curse, but it’s also hopeful. Though Run The Jewels was started as a fun project by Atlanta rapper Killer Mike and Brooklyn producer/rapper El-P to make dick jokes and talk wild shit, their mission has since changed a tad, or at least made more clear – crystally so (don’t worry, there’s still gems like ‘we cool as penguin pussy on the polar cap peninsula‘ courtesy of Mike on “out of sight”). Addressing horrid injustice, gross abuse of power, corruption, and straight-up evil is nothing new for either artist, in their solo work or together as Run The Jewels. The hardest-hitting instance of grim happenstance occurs in “walking in the snow”:
‘And everyday on the evening news they feed you fear for free
And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me
Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe’
And you sit there in house on couch and watch it on TV
The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a ‘tragedy’‘
For the duration of RTJ4, you’d be forgiven for believing that Mike and El were the angriest about our world’s circumstances. Although hardly a yell or scream can be heard from either of them, there’s a conviction behind every bar they lay down, politically driven or not. This is how it’s been since their first joint album, but now we see the apex of their chemistry together, playing off each other’s words and trading off raps like the hardest tag-team in existence. And that’s exactly how they bill themselves.
RTJ4 has a little show-within-a-show feel, where the duo imagine themselves as the Yankee and the Brave, notorious outlaws here to fuck shit up (you get one guess as to which name belongs to who), and this is episode four. Whether Mike and El are busy dumping a magazine of braggadocio into your ears or raging against the machine, everything feels purposeful – not a single wasted bar or opportunity. I’ve always respected both guys as writers and rhymers before RTJ was a thing, but some of the stuff here is next level:
‘You covet disruption, I got you covered, I’m bussin’
My brother’s a runner, he crushin’, it’s no discussion
I used to be munchkin, I wasn’t ‘posed to be nothin’
Y’all fuckers corrupted and up to somethin’ disgusting
My pockets are plumper this season, I love to cuff ’em
I’m afraid of nothin’ but nothingness, ain’t it somethin’
Warmongers are dumpin’, they’ll point and click at your pumpkin
Your suffering is scrumptious, they’ll put your kids in the oven‘
That was El-P on “ooh la la”, which is one of my favorite songs of the year. Sampling the classic “DWYCK” by Gang Starr and Nice & Smooth, it’s a fierce boom-bap hit featuring DJ Premier and Greg Nice themselves. The video is a power fantasy, but one for the proletariat. It shows a party thrown as the death knell of greed – perhaps capitalism itself – and classism signals the chains breaking and freeing the wage slave in us all. The natural response to such a thing happening is to, of course, get down. This is the duality of Run The Jewels: righteously beat some ass, then party your own ass off.
Speaking of features, the list is wild and it was just starting with Preemo and Greg Nice. “out of sight” has a great feature from 2 Chainz who everyone likes to talk shit about for…reasons, but he complements the huge amount of fun had on the track with chuckle-worthy lines like ‘I buy a hot dog stand if I’m tryna be frank‘. Gangsta Boo returns in a mostly uncredited feature on the hook of “walking in the snow” that’s ‘cold as fuck‘. “pulling the pin” has the legendary Mavis Staples tearing us apart on the hook with a guitar assist from Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss), but my favorites go to Zack de la Rocha and Pharrell Williams on “JU$T”. Pharrell’s butter-smooth voice is great for the pre-chorus (‘look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar‘), but Zack comes through with one hell of a rappity-rap verse that makes me wish again that he’d get some substantial solo material out here.
El-Producto even has more help on the production side of things, and it’s for the better. Little Shalimar and Wilder Zoby provide great assists that make these beats feel the most approachable, yet also the hardest-hitting in RTJ‘s whole discography. You get absolute slappers like “yankee and the brave (ep. 4)”, “out of sight”, and “the ground below”, but things still get eerie and chilling on “pulling the pin”.
Up until now, my favorite RTJ moment and track was “A Christmas Fucking Miracle“, the closer to their first album. It’s been nigh impossible to beat El’s uplifting verse and Mike’s subsequent tongue-twisting haymaker on that song for me personally. Now, we have “a few words for the firing squad (radiation)” in which both rappers get exceptionally personal with their verses and form rallying cries for us to heed:
‘Friends tell her he could be another Malcolm, he could be another Martin
She told her partna, ‘I need a husband more than the world need another martyr’
Made in Atlanta, Georgia where I use to ride the MARTA
With a empty .22 in the front pocket of my Braves’ Starter
Tryna make it out the mud as a baby father is much harder
The same children that you love and adore, the court will use to break and rob ya‘
‘For the holders of a shred a heart, even when you wanna fall apart
When you’re surrounded by the fog treading water in the ice cold dark
When they got you feeling like a fox running from another pack of dogs
Put the pistol and the fist up in the air, we are there, swear to God‘
At this point, Run The Jewels are one big metaphor for what we can achieve together. Just as Killer Mike urged protesters to ‘plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilize‘, he and El-P approached their music in a similar manner, surgically tuning and tweaking it to be much more than a mere hip-hop album or opportunistic, self-indulgent protest music. This is them, plain and simple – two friends united in going full Inglourious Basterds on any and all that aim to bring harm and hate, still releasing their music for free to everyone, upping the ante by offering the download on a pay-what-you-want model, the proceeds of which all go to the Mass Defense Program of the National Lawyers Guild. In the nick of time, we get RTJ4 to rile us up and become part of the soundtrack to the revolution we’re long overdue for. It’s either that or the dehumanization we all faced our whole lives if we falter or fail. You got a choice. Will you play your role or fall in line?
I’m tired. I’m tired of seeing Black people murdered by cops and racist civvies. I’m tired of seeing my Black friends live in fear that they’ll be next. I’m tired of seeing fascism run my country. But I’m nowhere near tired enough to stop fighting for Black lives (who are unquantifiably more exhausted than the rest of us) and what is right, and that’s the energy we all need to bring and keep until things change. If this album resonated with you to your core, you owe it to yourself and your peers to take direct action. Sign and share petitions, educate yourself on how deep these issues of systemic racism go, donate if you can, protest if you feel safe to, advocate for true and meaningful change. Stay mad, stay righteous in your intent – most importantly, listen to your Black friends.
I’ll leave you with Killer Mike‘s final verse of the album, exemplary of what he, and this music, is all about:
‘This is for the do-gooders that the no-gooders used and then abused
For the truth tellers tied to the whipping post left beaten, battered, bruised
For the ones whose body hung from a tree like a piece of strange fruit
Go hard, last words to the firing squad was ‘fuck you too’‘