In times like these, there are few groups you want to have drop an album more than the iconoclastic duo, Run The Jewels. The Atlanta/Brooklyn collab of Killer Mike and El-P have already carved out a lauded legacy with RTJ 1,2, and 3, combining arena-thumping bangin’ beats with eloquent, urgent, and socially conscious lyrics. The pair explain, attack, and dismantle the prohibitive and often deadly institutions and constructs that serve to hold down the disenfranchised. There are few in the game that can hit these issues so damn incisively.
By now, Killer Mike’s reluctant speech in Atlanta on May 30th in the midst of the protests and riots over the murder of George Floyd has gone viral and been seen by millions. Mike has been a frequent guest on politically-minded talk shows for years. He is one of the best at cogently disarming the tone-deaf lashes and dismissive whataboutisms that have ground our civil discourse to a halt and by consequence have set off this powder keg. So, now is the perfect time to hear from the outspoken wordsmith. However, Mike has raised the point to white America in a recent interview that “right now is always”. This change has to be lived and breathed and walked and talked every day because this systemic racism exists consistently day in and day out.
Now let’s set politics aside for a second…this album fuckin’ slaps!
11 dope tracks of bombastic bravado. Tight, economical production that prioritizes punch flanked by woozy, psychy synths, and snappy clap back samples. No lazy trap tropes here. The production brings to mind Two Fingers, the hip-hop outlet of electronic genius Amon Tobin. The group has etched out a signature sound that is able to create enveloping soundscapes with only a few well-selected sounds. However, the headline of the album as always is the skill of El and Mike to slay with words. The album boasts some high clout guests including Mavis Staples & Josh Homme, 2 Chainz, Greg Nice & DJ, and Pharrell Williams & Zach de la Rocha but the featured spots never outshine the power and irresistible hook of the two Masters of Ceremonies.
In this digital age, the common thread now is that artists have to give you within 5-10 seconds or you’ll skip to the next album or single. Usually this has meant unnaturally cramming the chorus at the beginning of the track to capitalize on its earworm value. RTJ just blasts the doors down instead. A steady (forgive the macabre cliche), machine-gun snare and sub announce their glorious return. ‘yankee and the brave (ep. 4)’ is a slick rollin’ mid-tempo explosion followed up by the infectious ‘ooh la la’. The 1-2 punch of dominating singles shows the duo having fun while staunchly planting their flag on the game in a new decade.
‘holy calamafuck’ leans back further into that Atlanta-bred, deep south beat. Slinky, rattling percussion holds the tension as thick buzzing synths blast a horn-like fanfare. Swarming sonics are spliced by verbbed-out plunks. Each verse switches gears like a Porche up-shifting, weaving through the autobahn. This is what the top of the game sounds like in 2020.
Doomy fuzz guitars open ‘Walking in the Snow’, one of the album’s most devastating indictments, filled with enough incendiary lines to bring down Trump Tower. Both El-P and Killer Mike sting with fiery lines on the culture of murder and incarceration that is rampant in the militarized police state of America. Killer Mike’s lines echoing this week’s chants of “I can’t breathe” are horrific because you see that these are far from isolated incidents. This lyric (which Mike would have written long before George Floyd’s murder) resonates week after week, month after month throughout the black community.
“Funny fact about a cage, they’re never built for just one group
So when that cage is done with them and you’re still poor, it come for you
The newest lowest on the totem, well golly gee, you have been used
You helped to fuel the death machine that down the line will kill you too (Oops)
Pseudo-Christians, y’all indifferent
Kids in prisons ain’t a sin? Shit
If even one scrap a what Jesus taught connected, you’d feel different
What a disingenuous way to piss away existence, I don’t get it
I’d say you lost your Goddamn minds if y’all possessed one to begin with”
“They promise education, but really they give you tests and scores
And they predictin’ prison population by who scoring the lowest
And usually the lowest scores the poorest and they look like me
And everyday on evening news they feed you fear for free
And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me
And ’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe”
And you sit there in the 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, I wish I could magically
Fast forward the future so then you can face it
And see how fucked up it’ll be
I promise I’m honest, they coming for you
The day after they comin’ for me”
The Pharell and de la Rocha guesting ‘Ju$t’ puts the focus on the building of America on the cornerstone of the subjugation of the African race as scientifically inferior (read Alexander Stevens 1871 ‘Cornerstone’ speech for reference. Williams sings the sarcastic hook “Look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar (get it??)” while de la Rocha brings up the back end delivering a vitriolic verse on this foul year of our lord. Rage Against the Machine and Run The Jewels had a joint tour that would have been in full swing right now if not for Covid-19. The shows have been postponed till 2021 but you can bet that they’re gonna blow the roof off those motherfuckers together.
The album finishes with it’s two most soulful tracks. ‘pulling the pin’ has dystopian overtones with unnerving, scurrying synths creating a haunting atmosphere. Guitars like live wires sparking out of control singe the scene. Josh Homme dwells deep in the ether offering background texture while national treasure Mavis Staples cries from her motherly voice “Static in my mind/Like sanity on borrowed time/Like right and wrong can’t be defined/There’s a grenade in my heart/And the pin is in their palm”.
The closer ‘a few words for the firing squad (radiation)’ offers one last statement where El and Mike lay it all out on the table over a steady pumping rise of strings and a wail down the back streets saxophone. El-P proclaims: “This is for the never heard, never even got a motherfuckin’ word” and Mike echoes with the final statement: “This is for the do-gooders that the no-gooders used and then abused/For the truth-tellers tied to the whippin’ 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” The group felt it necessary to post the track early on June 1st as a kind of response to the riots.
In the spirit of urgency, Run The Jewels moved up the release of the album to today. In a statement, El-P wrote: “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.” And thank you both for that. RTJ 4 gives us revelatory art to reflect, commiserate, organize, and party to in the wake of the ominous wave of 2020.