Run The Jewels — RTJ 4
Unbelievably, it has been 4 years since the release of Run The Jewels's last studio album. The group dropped RTJ 3 (review) on Christmas, 2016, without warning — as a gift to their fans, and everyone else struggling with the anxiety and tumult of Donald Trump's election victory. The album was incredibly well received and Run The Jewels spent the next 3 years touring heavily in support of it, before taking most of 2019 off to work on the follow-up record.
The world is no less fraught and dystopian now, in 2020. The year kicked off with the United States trying to provoke a war with Iran by assassinating one of their most revered generals. Then, a price dispute between Saudi Arabia and Russia cratered the global oil market. The COVID-19 virus has devastated economies in every country on each continent, shuttered entire industries and left 40 million Americans out of work. And, finally, on the cusp of RTJ 4's release, George Floyd was murdered at the bands of the Minneapolis Police Department.
While I find the notion that times of great social unrest and precarity are somehow more fertile ground for creativity, it cannot be denied that El-P and Killer Mike have been able to combine incisive, hard-hitting, topical messages with fun-loving bangers. It didn't require things to be this bad to get a piece of art like RTJ 4, it just happens to speak to the anxiety and anger of the era in which it was made. These are two industry veterans who remain as in-touch as ever.
Kicking off with the blaring, in-your-face Bomb Squad-inspired beat of "Yankee And The Brave," Run The Jewels show they haven't missed a step between releases. Killer Mike and El-P trade verses and rapid-fire flows in this sub-3-minute track that served as the lead-off single for the album. Next is the psychadelic "Ooh La La" with it's woozy, detuned piano lines layered over crisp drum machines and a Greg Nice vocal sample as the hook. These 2 singles, while very good, didn't excite me as much as I expected new Run The Jewels material to — the difference between wanting to hear more and needing to hear more.
The rest of the album is of similarly high quality, but also contains some truly powerful narratives and lyrical moments. Run The Jewels have always blended social commentary into their boasts and hedonistic brags, but the poignnancy of the material on RTJ 4 is undeniable. "Walking In The Snow," which includes the following verse from Killer Mike caught a lot of eyes when the album dropped:
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"
So many people thought that Run The Jewels had gone back in the studio to record that verse, after George Floyd was murdered. Mike was talking about Eric Garner, a black man who was choked to death by the New York Police Department in 2014. One could almost be forgiven for forgetting which publicly murdered black man he was talking about; if anything it reinforces the rest of the verse, which takes a shot at the complacency of the general public when these killings happen.
El-P's opening verse on "Walking In The Snow" is powerful in its own right, it just happens to be overshadowed by the prescience and topical nature of Killer Mike's lines. Not only is this one of the group's best tracks, musically, the lyrics hit like a ton of bricks. "Early," with its allusions to the Ferguson protests, from RTJ 2 (review), was a similarly affecting track but this new track hits harder and cuts deeper. It's been 6 years and we're still having the exact same discussions about the police, violence and systemic racism.
The bulk of RTJ 4 is fun material that doesn't get overly dour or take things too seriously. "Out Of Sight" has a solid feature from 2 Chainz, who lends some of his typical gems to the track with lines like "I buy a hotdog stand if I'm tryna be frank." Pharrel Williams supports "Ju$t" with a solid hook — which is echoed by a repeating vocal sample of Zach De La Rocha — in "look at all these slave masters posing on your dollars." It's examples like this, of which there are many in their catalogue, where Run The Jewels make social commentary 'catchy.'
"Out Of Sight" is another introspective track, featuring a synth-driven beat that sounds like the 80s filtered through El-P unique production aesthetic. Tonally, there are moments that remind me of a short passage in "Call Ticketron" from RTJ 3. The duo reflect on their respective pasts and their parents. Things get even more raw and emotional on the album's closer, "A Few Words For The Firing Squad." Run The Jewels records have always had powerful closing tracks, and RTJ 4 eclipses them all. The faux TV ad skit right at the end of the album dulls the impact a little, and feels out of place. (It's not a mood killer but it's a strange shift in tone right at the very end of the record.)
There's little to criticise here, and all of it is relatively minor. "Goonies Vs. ET" fails to stick in my memory at all, and "The Ground Below" is similar. I go back and listen to these tracks and they're very good, they just do not register long-term with me. Otherwise, RTJ 4 is a superb album. The production is big and powerful, taking the upgraded and expanded sound of its predecessor and adding even more sound dynamics with the greater use of sampling. El-P's production remains wholly unique without getting stagnant or predictable.
This album seems to feature Killer Mike a bit more prominently in verses, but El-P is hardly absent, moreso it seems he's giving his partner room to get his points across. Mike definitely seems to have been shaped by his political activism as of late, and I don't always agree with his views, but it's good to see him continuing to speak and flow with energy and conviction. Run The Jewels gets ever closer to their 10-year anniversary and show no signs of losing their passion for the project that has put 2 legendary solo careers on hold since its formation.
RTJ 4 is one of 2020's best, most essential records. This is another semi-regular reminder that the hype is justified.
Another incredible effort from Run The Jewels, a project able to straddle the line between entertaining bangers and astute social commentary. RTJ 4 is an action-packed 39 minutes, rife with infectious beats, catchy flows and incisive lyrics. The group doesn't break any new ground, but they've always been a unique experience unto themselves and they continue to dominate this niche they've carved out for themselves. This is some of Run The Jewels' best work to date and easily a candidate for Album Of The Year.
Release date: June 3rd, 2020
Record label: Jewel Runners / BMG Music
El-P — vocals, production
Killer Mike — vocals
DJ Trackstar — scratching (tracks 1, 3, 4, 8)
Greg Nice — additional vocals (track 2)
2 Chainz — additional vocals (track 3)
Gangsta Boo — additional vocals (track 6)
Zack De La Rocha — additional vocals (track 7)
Pharrel Williams — additional vocals (track 7)
Mavis Staples — additional vocals (track 10)
DJ Premiere — scratching (track 2)
Josh Homme — guitar (track 10)
- Yankee And The Brave
- Ohh La La
- Out Of Sight
- Holy Calamafuck
- Goonies Vs. ET
- Walking In The Snow
- Never Look Back
- The Ground Below
- Pulling The Pin
- A Few Words For The Firing Squad (Radiation)
Published: June 17th, 2020.