On the essential RTJ4, El-P and Killer Mike take no prisoners
Artist: Run The Jewels Album: RTJ4 Label: BMG ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Run the Jewels have been unstoppable since their inception in 2013, but RTJ4 is a new pinnacle for the duo of producer/emcee El-P and rapper Killer Mike.
Released a few days ahead of schedule as a response to public outcry following the murder of George Floyd by police, RTJ4 is a razor-sharp album that takes aim at the corrupt United States with devastating accuracy.
Their mission statement is laid out with Killer Mike’s verse on “Yankee and the Brave (ep. 4),” a mere 90 seconds into the record:
“I got one round left, a hundred 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”
Such a verse feels especially potent right now, with cities around the United States and the world protesting against police violence toward Black Americans.
Killer Mike and El P both reach another level as both artists and public voices with their fourth album as a group. Mike’s lyricism is a consistent highlight of the record, always weaving eloquent-but-sharp points into vivid imagery. It’s impossible to separate the image of Killer Mike speaking to Atlanta in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police from Killer MIke’s lyrics on “Walking in the Snow” about Eric Garner’s last words–ones that would be shared by Floyd not long after the song was recorded.
El-P is still an ideal foil for Killer Mike. His tighter, more-coiled flow complements Mike’s looser, straightforward bars; if his partner enters the room shooting, El-P is a few paces behind, watching his back. His lyricism is impressive—he references killing Hitler and Do the Right Thing plus trashes Atlas Shrugged with expected swagger. But as anyone who has been with El since the Company Flow days, it is his production that proves to be the real standout
The hard-hitting beats listeners have come to expect from El-P are present, but there’s so much going on underneath and around them. On “the ground below,” he samples Gang of Four’s “Ether,” infusing the stomping beat with a rock edge. “walking in the snow” brings funk into the mix and “a few words for the firing squad” sets the somber mood for Killer Mike and El-P’s album closer/confessional.
Run the Jewels themselves tackle most of the verses on RTJ4, but the album isn’t without its guests. DJ Premier and Greg Nice feature prominently on single “ooh la la” and 2 Chainz takes a verse on “out of sight.” Regular collaborator Gangsta Boo is here, energetically trading verses with El-P on “walking in the snow.” Josh Homme and Mavis Staples, meanwhile, appear on “pulling the pin.”
But the most thrilling collaboration is on “JU$T.” Reclusive Rage Against the Machine vocalist Zack de la Rocha and Pharrell Williams join Run the Jewels for perhaps the most incendiary song on RTJ4, invoking double meanings with lines like “Look at all these slave masters posin’ on your dollar.” Williams is the odd man out on the track, but not in a negative sense—his happier tone juxtaposes de la Rocha’s venomous delivery without diminishing his calls to run the map (and the jewels) before time runs out.
When RTJ4 was written and recorded, things in the United States were different, but not really. George Floyd was still alive, but Eric Garner was not. That is the most striking and memorable thing about the album: the songs on RTJ4 resonate so deeply because they are a searing indictment of the systemic racism that plagues the United States. RTJ4 feels like the most realized version of the duo’s vision thus far. No matter what comes next, Run the Jewels have made the perfect album for the times.