Album Review: Run The Jewels – RTJ4

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In case you haven’t heard, Run The Jewels are rising the ranks of the greatest rap duos of all time. El P, the beat making producer of all of their tracks and half of the group, was a NY rap hall of famer before a connection through Cartoon Network linked him up with Atlanta underground rap legend, Killer Mike. Both were already known for their willingness to speak truth to power (El P’s Funcrusher Plus and Killer Mike’s “Reagan” are some of the greatest political tracks out there), but together they have been able to achieve another level of success, artistically, financially, and politically. RTJ4 is the next evolution of that movement.

The 2 pothead poets of the apocalypse, El P and Killer Mike are always a couple years ahead of the curve. Their first LP came in 2013 right before Ferguson, Eric Garner, and Black Lives Matter protests erupted in cities around the country, and seemed to forebode the coming darkness.

Drones over Brooklyn if you blink you could get tooken,
and now you understand the definition of crooked.
Pigs on parade but bacon fried and cooken
cause kids tired of dying and walking round like their shooken.”

With their second LP in 2014 (again during the Obama reign, when almost no artist was talking about revolutionary politics), they dropped another gem which just predated the explosion of fascism, MAGA, and Trump’s rise to power within the Republican Party. The third LP, written immediately before the election and seemingly predicting Trump’s win and the unrest to follow, delivered some of the most revolutionary verses to date, about the ineffectiveness of the #resistance protests.

“Choose the lesser of the evil people, and the devil still gonna win
It could all be over tomorrow, kill our masters and start again
But we know we all afraid, so we just simply cry and march again.”

Now they are back with a new record, and still plenty to say. The duo are still the “antagonist bad guys” from LP1, but as their platform has risen above the ashes, they have taken up a leadership role and become even more political in their voice. Killer Mike became a campaigner for Bernie Sanders in 2016, other progressives in 2018, and then Bernie Sanders again in 2020, while El P has gone from troublemaker outlaw to robin hood, promoting causes across the map. All four of their LPs have been available for free download, and even now releasing RTJ4 in the midst of a pandemic and revolutionary unrest across the country, they are donating almost all their proceeds and lyrically leading the way.

So, what are RTJ saying now, and is the music even good? Lots, and yes. El P delivers easily some of his best beats on any Run The Jewels project. Each instrumental creates a massive variety of sounds and samples, and they continually speed by in forty different directions: drums, horns, alarms, and sirens. The constant fluidity keeps everything sprinting along, in control and on tempo, but only barely so, like the protests this music was meant for.

Prepared for this moment, El P and Mike leave it all on the field, draining every flow they’ve got and hopping back and forth tagging each other in and shattering skulls with fierce bars on police violence, and yes also just talking about how fucking cool they are and how pathetic their opponents are. The dense verses are memorable while still rewarding intent listening and research.

One theme across all of the Run The Jewels albums is that these 2 are saying things that you aren’t supposed to say about our government, and they are legitimately worried about political assassination or other consequences of spreading this revolutionary language.

“And your country getting ran by a casino owner
Pedophiles sponsor all these fucking racist bastards
And I told you once before that you should kill your master
Now that’s the line that’s probably gonna get my ass assassinated”

This theme is very apparent on this newest record now more than ever, and I think its consistency only shows the seriousness of this message and the time they spend consumed thinking about this realistic reality that befell some of their heroic inspirations like MLK and Malcolm X, let alone the short lifespans of artists in the rap world as it is.

I can’t let the pigs kill me, I got too much pride.
And I meant it when I said it, never take me alive.

This isn’t just talk. Artists have been in put prison for the violent verses they’ve written and on RTJ4 especially the duo do not hold back. If anyone is putting themselves on a government list, its them. The corporate media, the military, the police, and the fascists that run our state are not going to be pleased with these messages.

You’ve been hypnotized and Twitter-ized by silly guys
Cues to the evenin’ news, make sure you ill-advised
Got you celebratin’ the generators of genocide
Any good deed is pummeled, punished and penalized
Rulers of the world will slice it up like a dinner pie”

From police violence, Trump, the prison pipeline, and Christians throwing kids in cages, all of America’s beauty is contained in their verses if you take the time to listen.

“Funny fact about a cage, they’re never built for just one group
So when that cage is done with them and you’re still poor, it come for you
The newest lowest on the totem, well golly gee, you have been used
You helped to fuel the death machine that down the line will kill you too.”

So yes, this album is intensely political, but not completely. When the pair decide to just go old school battle rap and deliver rhyme scheme heavy verses about how fucking cool they are, not only are they successful, they are legitimately inspiring. These are verses that could win a poetry contest accapela, and just prove the level of their talent as pure MCs and songwriters.

“The pride of Brooklyn and the Grady, baby
We don’t need no compliments or confidence
Our attitude and latitude is, “Fuck you, pay me”
Next summer, leather bombers, dookie ropes, and smoking indica
Ain’t a team as mean and clean as J Meline and Michael Render, bruh”

Run the Jewels have so much to say, and do it so well, in an energy perfectly suited for this moment. Are El and Mike the leaders of the revolution? No probably not, but their art presents this dark moment in history so well that it would be hard to imagine them not being remembered in the history books. Every revolution needs a Poet Laureate.


Henderson Cole | @HendoSlice

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