Album Review: Run The Jewels – RTJ4

[Jewel Runners/BMG; 2020]

The entire world is burning. It has been for some time, but right now there seems to be a sea change occurring as a result of the latest run of racial injustices afflicting the black population. This is why, last week, at the height of tensions, Run The Jewels delivered their fourth album a couple of days early (and for free!) after a near four year absence. The timing of this release is so appropriate, it’s a bit eerie. It’s easy to forget the fact that these words were written long before George Floyd’s heart breaking utterance of “I can’t breathe.”

El-P and Killer Mike have been working in tandem for almost a decade now. The wildly popular duo sprung from two successful solo careers, but the collaboration elevated them to super-fan status. Much of the appeal seems to lie in the aggressive nature of each album, but with RTJ4 they’ve slightly broken the cycle.

Right off the bat, RTJ4 is the most mature effort for the group, as it does away with a lot of what made the previous efforts unbearable for those few left unassimilated: sophomoric dick jokes and chest pumping. On top of that, the subject matter is more serious. Killer Mike and El-P are clearly angry and sick of the bullshit, and rightfully so.

The album kicks off with “yankee and the brave (ep. 4)”, and Mike comes out firing with “I got one round left, a hunnid cops outside / I could shoot at them or put one between my eyes / Chose the latter, it don’t matter, it ain’t suicide / And if the news say it was that’s a goddamn lie,” directly hitting on the current state of affairs for black individuals.  Elsewhere, the chorus of “JU$T” might be one of the most quotable of the year: “look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar,” and it gets a perfect assist from Rage Against The Machine’s Zach De La Rocha, while Pharrell Williams tags in to pull back on the bristling intensity with a nice change of pace.

Plenty have already commented on Mike’s prophetic bars on “walking in the snow”, but they bear repeating: “And every day on evening news they feed you fear for free / And 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.’” It’s a moment that makes you stop in your tracks, clutching your gut. Referencing Eric Garner’s murder from 2014, tragically similar to that of George Floyd, “walking in the snow” is a prime example of how powerful RTJ can be when they put the bravado aside.

The production as always is still that in-your-face, brash, and over-the-top throwback approach that’s become their signature. Mike and El match it with the break-neck speed of their bars, which are on point as usual – but it is just non-stop. The primary emotion conveyed is rage, and it feels like there’s very little room for reflection, or even contemplation – it’s just a pummelling of war cries. This makes RTJ4 both inspiring and exhausting at the same time.

Only on “pulling the pin” do things take a detour, as they call in the help of legendary soul singer Mavis Staples and Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age. Everything feels slower here, and the bars are more laid back. Staples provides a welcome reprieve from the album’s intensity as she delivers the spine-tingling chorus: “There’s a grenade in my heart and the pin is in their palm.” This perfectly transitions into the conclusion of RTJ4, “a few words for the firing squad”, which couples spiralling saxophone with a droning synth to create a sunset over the album, before A$AP Ferg sings the closing credits in honour of our heroes “Yankee and The Brave.”

RTJ4 is every bit as explosive as one would have hoped, and whatever it lacks in diversity it makes up for with strong writing. It’s a record born out of generations of racial tension and almost four years of near-dictatorship in the USA. It’s the soundtrack to every state and every country’s protests, thus solidifying it as another time capsule of 2020. Its association with these trying times may eventually bring to question its lasting impact, but for now, Run the Jewels can take pride in knowing that times are changing, and they helped.