These are turbulent times. But I needn’t tell you that. Anyone with a phone, anyone who turns on the news, anyone who even talks to somebody else knows it to be true. Protests have erupted across the globe. People are outraged, and rightly so, and George Floyd’s death has become a lightning rod for any and all racial tensions. Questions are being asked, people are finally sitting up and paying attention, and amidst all of this, Run The Jewels have dropped their 4th album, RTJ4. In their own words, “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. Stay safe and hopeful out there and thank you for giving 2 friends the chance to be heard and do what they love.”
I’m reminded of another seminal, politically charged album, and another wave of protests, almost exactly 5 years ago. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly soundtracked the original Black Lives Matter protests, and RTJ4 feels prescient in the same way that that album does. Strangely, and depressingly, if you think about it, RTJ4 wasn’t even written in reaction to the protests going on at the moment; most of these songs were recorded in late 2019. So, tracks like walking in the snow feel disturbingly prophetic, not least when Killer Mike literally raps “I can’t breathe.” The track is also one of the bleakest on the album. The intro wouldn’t feel out of place on an IDLES record, and the titular “walking in the snow” refers to the burden placed on people of colour in almost any endeavour: forced to keep up with their white peers even when trudging through freezing snow. Critically though, the track doesn’t just stop at race. The duo recognise racial issues, but stress that if it wasn’t race, it would be something else – “I promise I’m honest, they coming for you the day after they coming for me”.
Socialist credentials aside, RTJ4 is absolutely what you’d expect from a Run The Jewels album. The same classic hip-hop flows, caustic beats and dark humour are all present and correct here. Run The Jewels may deal with far more political subject matter than most of their peers, but they always do so with immaculate rhyme structures and one-liners, all delivered at breakneck speed. Trying to read along with the lyrics is a fool’s errand. I’m reminded of the first time I ever heard Killer Mike’s name, on the track Hood Politics from the afore-mentioned Kendrick Lamar album: “critics want to mention that they miss when hip-hop was rappin / motherfucker, if you did, then Killer Mike would be platinum”. The album’s flows are indebted to the golden age of hip-hop, but the beats wear their love of rap-rock on their sleeve. They are bombastic throughout, sometimes to the record’s detriment. RTJ would be wise to remember that sometimes, to have the greatest impact, you need to take your foot off the gas.
A vague thematic thread runs through the record, of El-P and Killer Mike as a fictional TV show duo, Yankee and The Brave, a reference to the respective baseball teams they support. This also lends its name to the title track, yankee and the brave (ep. 4); however, this plot doesn’t surface again until the closing track, and isn’t really necessary to enjoy the album. The storyline they unveil on the opener is brilliant regardless, a tale not unlike Christopher Dorner’s, but with Killer Mike being saved by El-P in the nick of time (but not without some killer one-liners first: “now, Michael, run like you hungry and get your ass in the ride”).
Elsewhere, lead single ooh la la will leave you grinning, with an absolutely infectious piano loop, courtesy of DJ Premier. It’s also impossible not to love every second of the hypebeast-antagonising holy calamafuck: “I woulda took these lames’ Supreme jackets / Until you rob a hypebeast, you ain’t seen sadness” – and it has a Cutty Ranks feature, to boot. There’s also a track, JU$T, with an angry Pharrell feature, (words I never thought I would write). He tells the listener to “look at all these slaves masters posing on your dollar”, while El-P hammers the album’s anti-capitalist message home even further with “got a Vonnegut punch for your Atlas shrugs”.
The album isn’t quite To Pimp A Butterfly. There’s one or two mid-album cuts which don’t reach as high, and a bit of variation in the beats and flows would be appreciated. But when RTJ4 hits, it hits hard. Closer a few words for the firing squad (radiation) is absolutely outstanding. An incisive meditation on grief turns into a sermon on martyrdom: Killer Mike is worried he could become “another Malcolm, […] another Martin”. The track is a go hard or go home for the ages, a rallying cry for anyone listening who has ever been discriminated against – “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’” RTJ4 may well be the most vital album released this year.
Run The Jewels’ RTJ4 is available to download and stream now. You can download the whole album, for free, from RTJ’s website.