ALBUM REVIEW: ‘RTJ4’

Killer Mike and El-P’s glorious late-career renaissance continues with another profoundly timely, brilliantly explosive masterpiece.

There’s something to be said about the way Run the Jewels balance subversion with consistency. The entire premise of the collaboration between Jaime “El-P” Meline and Michael “Killer Mike” Render centered on a desire to “play with people’s expectations,” as El-P so aptly put it in a 2013 lecture at the Red Bull Music Academy.

At the same time, that mutual desire to challenge boundaries has led the pair to some of the most consistently spectacular hip-hop of the past decade, filled with gritty textures and radical philosophy. In that same lecture, El-P mentioned that he and Killer Mike first bonded over Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, and it makes sense that their music feels like a natural evolution of the fury embodied by NWA and The Bomb Squad. The animating ethos behind Run the Jewels encompasses a vicious rejection of established hierarchies and immense systemic inequality; above all else, it is embodied by a prescient rage towards the powers that be.

Of course it feels damningly relevant now, but Run the Jewels are no strangers to levity. Their second album, Run The Jewels 2, was released in October 2014, as the country waited in bated breath for the Ferguson grand jury to level charges against officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown. Its follow-up came a month after Donald Trump won the 2016 election, maybe the first of many searing manifestos in an era of post-Obama political awareness.

With that, we come to RTJ4. It arrives at a very distinct moment in America, where the anger of the general populace has spilled over into massive, wide-ranging direct action. It is the same profound, multifaceted anger — at the state-sanctioned brutality leveled by our policing systems; at the constant thieving of corporate interests as unemployment soars amidst a pandemic significantly impacting poorer people of color; at the two-party political system for profiteering and refusing to fix things as people die — that Run the Jewels have mined for years, and the immediacy of it all allows for some of the best, most explosive music the group has ever made.

On the very first song here, “yankee and the brave (ep. 4),” the pair find themselves in the midst of a police standoff, backed by a dramatically escalating El-P beat that, as Chris DeVille characterized it, “sounds like bombs going off underground and in the sky while anarchy breaks loose in between.” Framed as a fake Escape From New York-style film, the narrative allows the pair an opportunity for some effortless banter, bouncing back and forth through chest-puffed boasts as the riotous battle unfolds.

But suddenly, right as the song is coming to an end, the final line of Killer Mike’s closing verse snaps everything back into a jarring, ugly reality:

The crooked copper got the dropper, I put lead in his eye
‘Cause we heard he murdered a black child so none of us cried

It’s this razor-sharp balancing act between hard-nosed shit talk and devastating social commentary that has made Run the Jewels one of the most vital voices of the last decade, and while RTJ4 is no exception to the rule, it takes the duo further out than they’ve ever gone before.

On “JU$T,” with Pharell and old friend Zach De La Rocha, they pick apart the prison-industrial complex and the slavery of prison labor, sinking the knife deeper and deeper with the line “look at all these slave masters posin’ on your dollar.” The beat feels more lightweight than the usual El-P fare, juxtaposing nicely with the crew’s vicious delivery. On the prowling “walking in the snow,” Killer Mike’s rage feels agonizingly prophetic in the wake of George Floyd’s killing:

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’

There is no shortage of explosive fury here, and it’s the wonderfully titled “holy calamafuck” that takes it to its most literal, with a beat that literally demands “more fire.” The pair gladly oblige, firing shots at everyone in sight as the beat continues morphing into its own momentum.

In general, El-P’s beatmaking is what allows a lot of these songs to shine. Killer Mike’s anger at the “generators of genocide” on “goonies vs. E.T.” wouldn’t feel as lacerating if not for the apocalyptic beat, which builds into feverish jazz percussion and saxophone wails for one of the sharpest songs here. The sample of Gang of Four’s “Ether,” itself a brilliant Marxist analysis of the concept of freedom, carries “the ground below,” a liberating battle cry against oligarchy that rallies around sex worker unions and revolutionaries.

And it all comes to a head on the final track, “a few words for the firing squad.” The beat, churning forward at breakneck speed, eschews a percussive core for some vamping string work and wailing saxophones. It’s a deeply personal song; where Killer Mike looks at the losses that formed him, mainly that of his mother to addiction, El-P finds growth in his loved ones, in coming to terms with his role in the world as the strings crescendo into another crashing fall.

The song is as explicit a mission statement as we get here; a heartening tribute not only to “the truth tellers tied to the whipping post,” but also to “the ones whose body hung from a tree like a piece of strange fruit.” That’s why RTJ4 feels so deeply essential in this very moment: it sheds a tear for those we lost — Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd — but like the millions of people who have taken and continue to take the movement to the streets, it promises to never stop fighting.

Score:👉🏼 🤛🏿👉🏼 🤛🏿.5 / 5

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