RTJ4 begins at war with the police. The titular duo—Killer Mike and El-P—work to evade a swarming force of militant cops. They draw the mob in. They shoot back. They escape. It is a fantasy. The reality comes later.
“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 the house on couch and watch it on TV,” Killer Mike raps on “walking in the snow,” his voice urgent. The lyric is about Eric Garner. Now it’s about George Floyd, too. That these two unjust killings occurred under tragically, uncannily similar circumstances (out in the open; with other officers standing by; with a man being suffocated to death; on camera) nearly six years apart only underscores the unending flow of racist violence in America. The state of heightened rage such violence induces is untenable and corrosive. Yet love needs fury to fight hate. Clearly none of this is lost on the pair of indie, old head, no-fucks-giving, chain-snatching, self-professed menaces to sobriety behind this project. Their boisterous new album, RTJ4, makes time for trash-talking and chin-checking amid insurrection.
RTJ are still taking it to the streets to fight a tyrannical ruling class and racist policing. But after the taxing process of making Run the Jewels 3, a vitriolic album in a race against doomsday, they’ve leveled off to a manageable degree of righteous indignation. To maintain equilibrium, the punchlines are less juvenile, too, and there’s a noticeable decrease in dick jokes. Fortified with lessons learned from their “blue” album, the duo conjures up the album closest to who they are as rappers and fans, activists and husbands, goofballs and go-getters: weary but unbroken, wary but not hopeless, eager to knuckle up.
By now, at the fourth installment of this series greenlit by an Adult Swim programmer, it’d be easy for them to just punch in and deliver their mandated hour of outsized, kick-in-your-teeth braggadocio—obviously, there’s still plenty of that: “Until you rob a hypebeast you ain’t seen savage/Clockwork Orange madness, left the scene laughing,” Mike raps on “holy calamafuck”. But on RTJ4, the pair has settled into a nice rhythm—Mike, standing his ground, gun in tow, atop a soapbox; El, the truther following every red string across a tack board. RTJ4 re-engineers their music to its most critical components, as if extracting its essence. They scrap any dead weight to maneuver more freely, finding the balance between mischief-makers and agitators.
RTJ3, released under the looming shadow of Trumpism, featured a quote from the 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. speech “The Other America”: “A riot is the language of the unheard.” What remained unsaid was what, exactly, the “other” America had failed to hear: that “large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.” The pursuit of justice is active here, and it’s loud as shit and shaking the table. These guys don’t do tranquility. They don’t even do subtlety. Ain’t shit fly but the drones. (One El-P assessment: “This whole world’s a shit moat filled to the brim like GitMo.”) But they are noticeably more measured, both in trying to portion out their fury more carefully and choosing their words more precisely. “Used to be a time I’d see it and I’d say it/Now I understand that woke folk be playin’,” Mike raps on “goonies vs. E.T.” That forethought brings concision that plays into their personas as pithy, shit-talking government watchdogs.
While his real-world politics aren’t as anarchic as his songs, sound bites, and even shirts suggest, and his black capitalist position does defang his “eat the rich” sloganeering some, Mike is still capable of reeling off devastating combinations in that rubbery voice of his. He forgoes some of his quotability this time to better serve the flexibility of his rapping. He establishes his priorities on “a few words for the firing squad (radiation),” through his wife: “Friends tell her, ‘He could be another Malcolm, he could be another Martin’/She told ‘em, ‘Partner, I need a husband more than the world need another martyr.” For him, now, staying active in his community is paramount, and he raps like someone lit a fire under him. His closing verse on “goonies vs. E.T.” is one of his best, at once dauntless and precise, like watching someone skip across a minefield and survive.
El-P, for his part, has rarely sounded so animated. He is in a near-constant state of agitation, appearing through plumes of weed smoke to kick up dust, like some whistleblowing anti-hero in a dystopian YA novel. “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,” he raps on “the ground below.” It’s that kind of highly self-referential, bluntly political, fun-loving pulp fiction mash-up bar that keeps the project so viable.
There are fewer back-and-forth exchanges than on previous albums and the verses don’t dovetail as much but the two still move well in tandem. They cover each other, their writing well-sequenced, their rapping finely staged. There’s a section on “never look back” where Mike punctuates every one of El-P’s thoughts. Mike’s bluster can cover El’s evasiveness, and El’s tendency to hang back and observe bolsters Mike’s aggression. In one exchange, El strings out a sentence like a line of train cars, “You covet disruption, I got you covered, I’m bustin’/My brother’s a runner, he’s crushin’, it’s no discussion,” crafty in and around the corners, to which Mike adds, frankly: “People, we the pirates, the pride of this great republic/No matter what you order, muhfucka, we’re what you’re stuck with.”
The banter holds RTJ’s music together at the seams. Even when serious, it never runs the risk of becoming dour or unbearable, because they feel like they’ll always get the last laugh. This commitment to wordplay as wisecracks birthed the characters Yankee and the Brave, an imagined buddy comedy action thriller (that may or may not actually come to fruition on the screen), and manifests on the bobbing, 2 Chainz-aided “out of sight,” the slap-happy “holy calamafuck,” and in moments when Mike compares himself to Godzilla or El has “a Vonnegut punch for your Atlas shrugs.” For two rappers in their 40s, they sound so liberated and timeless, all without a chip on their shoulder about the younger class. This ability to stay true to who they are feels as radical as anything else they do. “Two dudes who were born in 1975 are not supposed to be allowed to be at the cutting edge of music,” El-P told GQ, after establishing the M.O. of this dynamic duo: “We’re using our powers for good.”
They have always been historians—2014’s RTJ2 was a classicist fever dream—but RTJ4 exists in tribute to the old school. Those intentions are clear: DJ Premier and Greg Nice guested on a single. There’s scratching across the record from Trackstar the DJ and Cutmaster Swiff. “Run the Jewels has always been an homage to a degree, to a feeling that we had, to the classic groups that we came up with,” El-P explained earlier this year. “Not trying to recreate them, but to just live in that feeling when we’re making music.” He likened this run that they’re on to raucous New York duo EPMD’s, and the comparison seems apt. Some of the songs embody vintage hardcore funk rap. Others sound like sci-fi boom-bap. “out of sight” is like an ever-mutating version of the D.O.C.’s “It’s Funky Enough.” Afforded greater financial freedom by the group’s success, El-P’s songs are layered with stunning and meticulous sample work, but the beats are no less forceful. These are hard-hitting throwbacks with an ear to the ground.
RTJ4 centers protest music less explicitly than RTJ3 did, but the moments when the album is most pronouncedly in active revolt are still when it feels most essential. The in-your-face commentary of “walking in the snow” and “pulling the pin,” with Mavis Staples seemingly transmitting from another era, bring the most out of the two rhymers. All of the surveying seems to come to a head on closer “a few words for the firing squad (radiation),” where both Mike and El rattle off personal reflections from inside a dying empire. In their verses, it’s the love for those closest to them and the losses they’ve sustained under the current order that fuels their fury. The song builds, the rage builds, and as it draws to a close, Mike makes clear who all this is for: the do-gooders that the no-gooders abused; the truth-tellers tied to the whipping post; the strange fruit left hanging from trees—the Eric Garners; the George Floyds.
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