One of the few things that could lift our spirits right now is a new Run The Jewels album. We couldn’t possibly appreciate RTJ4 more. As many have pointed out, its subject matter is so relevant, you’d think Killer Mike & El-P somehow wrote the lyrics early last week. Though this LP may seem prophetic or impossibly timely, the truth is that these two heroes have been delivering crucial messages about systemic racism and injustice for years. The main difference is that, in this defining moment in history, more people are finally doing a better job of listening and learning. So yes, RTJ4 came out at the perfect time, as all RTJ records do. Its eloquent wakeup calls stick in your brain, set to pulse-accelerating protest music built for dancing and shouting.
In light of George Floyd’s killing by police and the ensuing international protests, RTJ4 was released two days early – for free like their previous albums, this time with the option to donate to the fight for equality. In just over a day, Run The Jewels had already raised $150K for the National Lawyers Guild Mass Defense Fund – “a network of lawyers, legal workers and law students providing legal support for political activists, protesters and movements for social change.” Upon the album’s surprise release last week, the duo stated, “Fuck it, why wait. The world is infested with bullshit so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all. We hope it brings you some joy. Stay safe and hopeful out there and thank you for giving 2 friends the chance to be heard and do what they love. With sincere love and gratitude, Jaime & Mike.”
The underlying rhythm throughout RTJ4 is hypnotic, intense, and surprising, like the unpredictable patterns of fire as it burns. It’s never been harder to pick a favorite Run The Jewels album, so we won’t even try to compare it to their past work, but they sound undeniably confident and sharp at this point in their careers. Lyrically, as Killer Mike put it, RTJ4 is like “drinking a fresh cup of coffee, getting punched in the face, and then smoking a joint and getting a hug afterwards.” Just like RTJ4’s bright pink cover, the music defies old norms and demands your attention. Timothy Saccenti’s dope album artwork shows the jewel runner hands looking less smooth and shiny than they did on 2016’s RTJ3; more angular and edgy, as one could also say about RTJ’s delivery. The tracklist lettering by Nick Gazin (who also made the early release announcement note) makes the songs look as explosive as they sound. Interestingly, on streaming platforms, the eleven-track LP is stylized in lowercase letters, except for song number seven, “JU$T.” It’s fitting that this track is emphasized, because it’s a standout with a key message, featuring none other than Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against The Machine, as well as Pharrell Williams.
In the album’s chilling first single, “yankee and the brave (ep. 4),” Killer Mike explains why he’d rather kill himself than be killed by the police. “I got one round left, 100 cops outside / I can shoot at them or put one between my eyes / Chose the latter it don’t matter it ain’t suicide / And if the news say it was that’s a god damn lie / I couldn’t let them pigs kill me I got too much pride…” With scratches from touring DJ Trackstar (like numerous tracks), it’s a gritty opener that wastes no time building the mood. Run The Jewels love sneaking heavy topics into dance-triggering beats, and that trick continues in “ooh la la (feat. Greg Nice & DJ Premier),” the album’s second single. It taps into a sample of “DWYCK” by Gang Starr featuring Nice & Smooth (1994), and shit gets freaking addictive.
Next groove “out of sight” features 2 Chainz – the punny line, “I buy a hot dog stand if I’m tryna be frank,” is just one of his fine additions. It contains a sample of “Misdemeanor” by Leon Sylvers III, originally performed by Foster Sylvers (1973), that gives it extra depth. After that, “holy calamafuck” creates a genuinely scary vibe, with echoes of “more fire!” ringing out between verses. El-P’s quick nod to Pulp Fiction – “Better try to stay cool honey bunny don’t move” – is the only soothing thing about this song, which could work in a horror movie (seriously filmmakers, slide this into an arson scene). “goonies vs. E.T.” is as much of a blast as its nostalgic name – even as they address infuriating realities: “Any good deed is pummeled, punished and penalized / Rulers of the world will slice it up like a dinner pie / Race in a nation told you to identify / People take false pride and warfare incentivized.”
Remember Gangsta Boo from RTJ2’s “Love Again (Akinyele Back)”? She’s back on RTJ4’s “walking in the snow,” a dark and incisive song that references the police killing of Eric Garner in 2014. “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 / But truly the travesty / You’ve been robbed of your empathy / Replaced it with apathy,” Killer Mike points out. His words hit hard, especially since George Floyd was also an unarmed black man who repeated “I can’t breathe” while being killed by a white cop – a sickeningly common terror that current protests aim to eliminate.
The only track with an all-caps title, the unforgettable “JU$T” calls out an especially hypocritical symbol of U.S. values – in this case, the one that stares back at us from our own wallets every day. “The 13th Amendment says that slavery’s abolished / Look at all these slave masters posing on yo dollar (get it)” they decry, with suave contributions from Pharrell. The first thrill of hearing Zack de la Rocha’s voice on this track – you know that incredibly badass moment at the 00:27 mark – is soon heightened by his lyrical depth. With his signature scorching delivery, Zack asks, “How can we be the peace?” / When the beast gonna reach for the worst / Tear all the flesh off the earth / Stage set for a deafening reckoning / Quick like the pace of my verse…”
“never look back” hooks you from its first suspenseful notes, and as usual, Run The Jewels hold your focus with the words. “Never look back, you will only get bitter,” raps Mike. “If you get bitter, you will never get better / Never get better, then you never get bigger / Never get bigger then you never make cheddar.” “the ground below” includes elements of “Ether” by Gang of Four (1979) and ultimately sounds like the soundtrack to a cool/calm/collected car chase. El-P tears up his verses beautifully, and we finally get his true backstory: “Born from the ether I just appeared out a cloud a reefer.” El goes on to declare, “You see a future where Run the Jewels ain’t the shit / cancel my Hitler killing trip / turn the time machine back around a century.”
Run The Jewels are all about bringing people together. Among countless examples, please enjoy Killer Mike performing RTJ2’s “Lie, Cheat, Steal” with a barbershop quartet at a nursing home, then gently explaining the lyrics to the elderly white crowd. On that topic, if you haven’t yet seen his Netflix series, Trigger Warning, get on it. So it makes sense that they were able to combine the sounds of R&B and gospel singer Mavis Staples and Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age (who is still on our shitlist after kicking a photographer in the face, but an otherwise good performer). The two feature on penultimate track “pulling the pin,” and Staples crushes the vocals, serving up the sobering chorus with warmth. Her line, “And at best, I’m just getting it wrong / And at worst, I’ve been right from the start,” seems to reflect the empty hope that things aren’t as bad as they seem, as well as the cold reality – that they’ve been bad for a long time, and not enough people cared before.
Album closer “a few words for the firing squad (radiation)” in particular has gotten some well-deserved attention during the fight for equality. Soon after he raps reflectively, “Black child in America the fact that I made it’s magic,” Killer Mike goes on to finish out RTJ4 with a painful and powerful dedication. “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.” Beyond sounding amazing, RTJ4 already seems to be a force that will help the movement maintain its momentum. Long after things are trending, these enduring songs will keep the right topics at the forefront of the conversation. An album this strong is poised to change minds, comfort the oppressed, and unify all.
Article: Olivia Isenhart
Photos: Shayne Hanley
Cover Image: Tim Saccenti