2020 Music Reviews

Album Review: Run the Jewels ‘RTJ4’

RTJ4 by Run the Jewels

A new Run the Jewels record could not have come at a more imperative moment. The previous effort from Atlanta native Killer Mike and New Yorker El-P, Run the Jewels 3 (2016), arrived in the wake of a devastating defeat for the United States’ Black and left-leaning population — the election of Donald Trump. Today, Black activists and their allies are protesting the May 2020 murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Facing the dual threats of an ever-present pandemic and openly violent law enforcement, those taking action are pushing back against pervasive systemic racism upholding a culture of police brutality and racial injustice — an infrastructure actively endorsed by Trump himself. In this moment of confusion, anger and danger, the Western world finds itself at a fork in the road. On RTJ4, Run the Jewels call on listeners to choose the right direction or risk catastrophe.

RTJ4 arrives amid the Trump administration’s increasingly militarised response to protestors, with the duo hoping the album might bring some “joy” in the darkness. Opener “yankee and the brave (ep. 4)” kicks things off with this in mind, positioning El-P and Killer Mike as two Saturday matinee hero outlaws on the run from the cops. A low-end bass-heavy swagger accompanies the rappers’ relentless, articulate grand-standing, generating an irrepressible sense of fun. This is reinforced in the 90s-indebted bounce of “ooh la la,” carried forth on exuberant, amusing nods to hip-hop legacy (“Ol’ Dirty Bastard / go in your jaw / shimmy shimmy ya” and “Pugilistic, my linguistics are Jeru the Damaja”).

But that positive energy can only go so far. The simmering fury preoccupying the duo quickly bleeds through. One-line nods like “one round left, a hundred cops outside” or “we heard he murdered a black child so none of us cried” are the first drops to leak from a dam set to burst. The restless synth hits and stop-start beats of 2 Chainz-featuring “out of sight” sound like a cumbersome machine warming up for battle, preceding as they do a masterful run of tracks, intensely focused and effective in their socio-political perspicacity.

In a televised speech on May 29, Killer Mike, born Michael Render, implored his fellow Atlantans not to burn down their own home in their fury. The son of a Black police officer, Mike’s relationship to law enforcement is intensely nuanced. He caught scorn for feeling out the contours of that nuance in his speech at a time when more direct action is being called for. As the sturdy centre of the Run the Jewels project, around whom production whizz El-P (Jaime Meline) builds a madcap world of noise and invention, Killer Mike’s wide-ranging, intricate philosophy takes centre stage in the best tracks of RTJ4. On the spacey, frantic “goonies vs. E.T.,” he arrives in the song’s final minute, following on from a loopy El-P-led, eco-justice odyssey with a ferocious, thorough state of the nation address: “Now I understand that woke folk be playin’ / Ain’t no revolution that’s televised and digitized / You’ve been hypnotized and Twitter-ised by silly guys.”

Killer Mike’s best deliveries are at once considered and rapid. It’s a stunning feat to admire, especially on album highlight “walking in the snow,” which takes dead aim at the American prison system and abuses of police power. He goes long on how the country’s infrastructure sets up its Black citizens for failure, serving up a cavalcade of imminently quotable lines. The heart-stopping apex of this essay-like opus, though, is when Killer Mike abruptly interrupts his interminable flow to wheeze out “I can’t breathe,” chillingly quoting the final words of Eric Garner as he was choked to death by a police officer in 2015. In a disturbing moment of premonition, these words were repeated by George Floyd as he died, not long after the track was written.

While Killer Mike’s deeply felt words give RTJ4 its dominant thematic landscape, the album presents plenty of opportunity for El-P’s virtuosic sonic inventiveness to come to the fore. “JU$T” hinges on a pendulum-like trap beat and haunting choral synths that give depth and dynamism to the fist-pumping hook — “look at all these slave masters posin’ on your dollar” — repeated ad infinitum by El-P, Killer Mike, Pharrell Williams and Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha, with each performer’s distinct delivery style adding to a storied chorus of outrage. El-P lets the frenetic synthesisers build like the background music to a Nintendo 64 boss level on “never look back” and makes effective use of organic instrumentation in the cranking punk guitar of “the ground below.” El-P’s delivery remains as rapid-fire and acrobatic as ever, though he graciously cedes the floor to his colleague where appropriate — “this is for the never-heard,” he declares on closing track “a few words for the firing squad (radiation).”

While that final track is a lengthy, cinematic conclusion with its triumphant orchestration and bombastic saxophone solos, the album’s climax comes on penultimate entry “pulling the pin.” Guest singer Mavis Staples howls on the chorus “at worst, I’ve been right from the start,” speaking to the long-ignored truth at the corrupt heart of America. The song is a swirling, mournful rapture, articulating the pain Run the Jewels shares with those out protesting right now. Where much of RTJ4 keeps up an effervescent pace across its entertaining, concise 40-minute runtime, “pulling the pin” sheds that colourful exuberance to bring about a long overdue reckoning.

Killer Mike and El-P created RTJ4 before George Floyd’s murder, but his ghost and those of other Black victims of police brutality loom large over the album. The verbal gymnastics and musical dynamism on display serve as an exacting call to attention, turning listeners’ eyes and ears onto a reality long disregarded by the privileged. As is expertly articulated by contemporary hip hop’s most accomplished proponents, these festering injustices aren’t remotely new and must be eliminated at all costs.

Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.