Our Take: 4.5/5 Stars
Rap supergroup Run the Jewels returned from a four-year hiatus with the release of their fourth album, “RTJ4,” on June 3. The surprise drop was early, the record was to be digitally released on June 5, with a physical release scheduled in September 2020. “F*** it, why wait,” the duo tweeted, “The world is infested with bulls*** 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.”
Formed in 2013 after the members toured together, Run the Jewels is made up of well-established rappers Killer Mike and El-P. Though their solo works feature very distinct sounds, it is easy to see what drew the artists to one another: biting, intelligent lyrics and nonconformist, dissident attitudes.
This similarity is a common thread throughout the Jewels’ discography. Their deep introspection and social commentary — and more often, criticism — has made them political rappers. “RTJ4,” their first album recorded in the Trump-era, reaches a new level of their trademark rage, dissatisfaction and defiance.
Given the current unrest of the nation, the album could not be more relevant. “RTJ4” is not just a feat of rap and hip-hop, but is modern protest music at its finest. Despite the fact that this album was recorded over a year ago, its themes and lyrics are poignant. The appalling truth is that this album could have been released at any point in American history, and it would tell truths of not only racial but economic and social injustices.
“yankee and the brave (ep. 4),” the first single, opens the album like a vintage cartoon, an unknown accouncer proclaims: “This week on Yankee and the brave.” Then Killer Mike takes over with an impossibly fast verse recalling his experience growing up black in the south. El-P counters with his own experience being a New York rapper. The song is an ode to the duo’s brotherhood, as they call it. Black and white, northern and southern, Braves fan and Yankees fan, the two have found a groove that they both thrive in.
One of the most lyrically dense and intense songs is “walking in the snow.” The music, like most of the Jewels’ tracks, has an unrelenting beat. The chorus, sung by rapper Gangsta Boo, is repetitive and haunting. What truly brings the song home, however, are Killer Mike’s verses. While Killer Mike’s lines, “And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me/And ’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe’/And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV/The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy,” could be referencing the murder of George Floyd by a police officer on May 25, 2020, they are most likely recalling Eric Garner’s similar death from six years prior.
While the album features many collaborations, “JU$T (Ft. Pharrel Williams & Zach de la Rocha)” is the holy grail. “JU$T” is a bouncy track that has a simpler and more laid back musical backbone than other song on the album. Shining a spotlight on a common RTJ theme, the track calls out the injustices perpetrated by the one percent, or modern “slave masters.” Pharrel sings the impossibly catchy pre-chorus that is sure to stick in the listener’s head. Rage Against the Machine’s de la Rocha not only helped to write the track but supports Mike and El-P’s lines before getting his own time to shine in a verse that proves that he still has it.
By far, the best track on the album closes it out. The last track, “a few words for the firing squad (radiation),” is a seven-minute musical experience. In it, the duo reconciles their humble beginnings and their financial and commercial success with their unfavorable political views of the ruling economic class. The beat seems to build to an uncomfortable pressure for the first three minutes of the song, creating an intense anxiety before giving way to a cello-heavy orchestral crescendo, only to be shown up by an impressive saxophone solo. Then, the finale song ties the end to the intro track with a monologue straight out of a cheesy 1980’s TV show or a Quentin Tarantino movie, detailing the adventures of “small time hustlers” Yankee and the brave.
With dissatisfaction in their hearts and socially conscious lyrics and incredible beats, Run the Jewels are truly a representation of today’s zeitgeist. While there honestly is not much variety between the tracks, there does not need to be. There is no better time for an album like this to be released. Its predecessor “Run The Jewels 3” was described by Pitchfork as “a soundtrack for the riots to come.” “RTJ4” is a soundtrack for the riots today.