Some albums just seem to come around at exactly the right time. Think Marvin Gaye releasing What’s Going On at the height of the Vietnam war and political unrest in America, Sex Pistols releasing their first album as the punk movement reached its peak, or Kendrick Lamar unveiling To Pimp A Butterfly as the Black Lives Matter movement began taking shape.
And now, with racial tensions reaching a breaking point in America and the whole world living in perpetual concern and confusion, Run The Jewels have unveiled their fourth album, RTJ4, capturing the outrage and frustration felt by many in 2020.
Killer Mike and El-P have never strayed from their strong beliefs and confrontational views on their previous work, both together and in their solo efforts. But with RTJ4, they have taken a molotov cocktail of vicious lines, searing bars, and explosive beats, and thrown it into the current state of the world.
To paraphrase the film Network, they’re mad as hell, and they’re not gonna take it anymore.
It’s frightening how relevant so much of the album’s lyrical content is, considering that many of these tracks were written and recorded months ago.
For instance, even though he wrote them with Eric Garner in mind, Killer Mike’s lines in “Walking In The Snow” have an eerie similarity to the tragic injustice that befell George Floyd:
“You so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / Until my voice goes from a shriek to a whispered ‘I can’t breathe’ / And you sit there, in house, on couch, and watch it on TV / The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy”.
This volatile powder keg of lyrical fury is found all over RTJ4, whether the pair are taking aim at America’s shameful history of slavery (“Look at all these slave masters posin’ on your dollar”), Trump supporters (“What a disingenuous way to piss away existence / You lost your goddamn minds if y’all possessed one to begin with”) or the portrayal of the black community in the media (“We accept the role of villains cause we’ve been vilified”).
It’s incredible to think that something this powerful could come from a hip-hop duo that didn’t have much interest from the public at first, comprising two veterans pushing forty years old each.
Neither Killer Mike or El-P have lost their lyrical skills, as clever and insightful cracking jokes as they are educating the listener on the ills of society. Their flows have never been smoother, their rhymes at full force, and their depth of imagery and commentary never more engrossing.
Musically, RTJ4 is just as aggressive and brutal as its lyrics. El-P is as talented in a producer’s chair as he is behind a mic, creating a cavalcade of immediate, forceful sounds and beats to back up the duo’s words.
Opening track “Yankee And The Brave” is a brilliant throwback to Rick Rubin’s 80s work, filled with booming drumbeats and heavy vocal echos. “Ooh La La” glides by on a grade-A soul piano sample.
“Goonies vs. E.T.” creates an uncomforting atmosphere with droning bass notes and crashing drums, while “JU$T” creates an entrancing beat and synthesised vocals to provide a killer bedrock for guests Pharrell and Zack De La Rocha, someone who knows plenty about Raging against the machine.
Really, there’s so much to recommend about this incredible album that it’s hard to include everything (we haven’t even mentioned the killer Mavis Staples and Josh Homme featuring “Pulling The Pin” or the incredible, visceral finale “a few words for the firing squad”).
But above all, if there is any album that can identify, dissect, and reflect the fury, pain, confusion, and anger that has been 2020, this is it. Run The Jewels have created a document for these troubling times that will stand forever as one of the definitive documents of this turbulent year.
Listen to Run The Jewels RTJ4 on Spotify below and stream it everywhere else here.
Words by Jack Murphy
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