At a time when so many thoughts are turned towards protesting the disgraceful systemic racism still prevalent in the police system spurred on by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer, new Run The Jewels music mightn’t be a source of solace, but it’s definitely appropriate. The duo’s politics have always been a prominent feature and have seen them really hit high watermarks within modern hip-hop (as well as cultivate a relationship with Rage Against The Machine that makes all too much sense), and it’s easy to get the impression that that’s played a significant role in informing the dropping of this album now, not only as a free release but bringing it forward by a few days from its original release date. It’s a grounding factor in how punk Run The Jewels can actually feel; the politics speak for themselves, but with both El-P and Killer Mike being legends in their own right within hip-hop, keeping such an immediate, ground-level connection has always been one of Run The Jewels’ greatest strengths. They’ve yet to release a bad album – indeed, Run The Jewels 2 and 3 are among the very top tier of hip-hop releases in their respective years – and even when the clamour around RTJ4 comes across as a lot smaller, the magnitude it brings in its presence hasn’t diminished. They’re a hip-hop duo have become reliable, but not in the pejorative or laurel-resting sense, and the casualness with which RTJ4 has been released not only hammers in the confidence this duo has when it comes to their output, but also in the fact that their own connections on a street level remain intact.
And it’s a testament to just how good Run The Jewels are when RTJ4 achieves all of that in spades, alongside being arguably their tightest and most straightforward album to date. There’s exactly the sort of dedication to the craft that you’d expect from veteran rappers across the board here, both in construction that’s this appropriately brusque and lyrical ability that, as always, pulls no punches, but still manages some remarkable conciseness at the same time. When Run The Jewels hit their stride, there’s not an inch of space that goes wasted, and that feels like what RTJ4 prides itself on most. Even if it’s not quite their absolute best (Run The Jewels 2 still holds pride of place there), it’s genuinely not far off, and arriving at a time that clads it with even more relevance and potency only bumps the reverence towards it even higher.
And while depth and evocative lyricism is nothing new for Run The Jewels, there’s still the same visceral thrill that comes through on this album, especially on an album that, on its most primal level, is a call for rebellion with its vision fixed almost squarely on that goal. That especially comes through with just how much the dynamics within hip-hop are explored and played, like with what seems like a fairly standard – yet extremely well-crafted – assertion of bravado on out of sight that’s flipped to show how that’s their driving force to spur on change on holy calamafuck, or like on JU$T, a song that takes aim at the disproportionately wealthy that run society within themselves in mind, in which Killer Mike’s first verse sees him taking on a standard trap flow, almost as a satirisation of those artists who’ll use wealth and flexing to assert some form of dominance, only to still be viewed as lesser by those for whom actually have power. There’s definitely a fair number of instances that see the outer characterisation dropped for a pure call to arms, with the closer a few words for the firing squad (radiation) being easily the best example, but RTJ4’s commentary works best when Run The Jewels do more with their dynamic as a mixed-racial duo and the individual perspectives that can bring. It’s where walking in the snow stands as the obvious highlight of the album, with El-P realising his privilege as a white ally gives him the means of examining the thought processes of those who continue to persecute and discriminate people of colour, something that Killer Mike, as a black man, doesn’t have. Instead, he realises how systemic racism and inequality is something he’s just had to put up with, with a line like “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””, it’s an almost scarily contemporaneous image in how it draws the exact parallels to George Floyd’s murder only days ago.
That line alone highlights a cutting-edge sensibility to Run The Jewels that’s always been so critical within their music; as much as their status as scene veterans might shift the spotlight off them individually, there’s a power to them as a collective that’s almost unmatched, especially considering that not one bit of their fire has dulled over time. Killer Mike arguably stands out more with his more authoritative tone and stone-hewn flows, but El-P’s slyer, more sneering delivery is a perfect foil, and having the two trade off verses and bars as much as they do not only fills in the gaps of what their individual voices might lack, but does more in the sense of camaraderie that’s even brought out in their guest stars. Quality there isn’t too surprising in most cases, like with Mavis Staples’ trembling chorus on pulling the pin that fits perfectly with the haunted guitar courtesy of Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme, but Pharrell and Rage Against The Machine’s Zach De La Rocha don’t clash nearly as much as one might expect on JU$T, and even 2 Chainz delivers with content that’s more in his wheelhouse on out of sight. For the most part though, the focus is placed on the main duo, and it’s hard to find a weakness among them; intensity is always present, and there’s real personality between the two that’s able to keep this album almost consistently buoyed up and feel as sharp and directed as it is.
Of course, that’s not to take away credit from so much of the instrumentation and production, where the nexus between rougher old-school hip-hop and rock tones is where Run The Jewels have placed themselves, and they’re able to work with what they have really well in almost every situation. The sample of Gang Of Four’s Ether that founds the ground below might dip into slightly turgid rap-rock tones that the cement-cracking beat doesn’t help with, but that emphatically feels like a fluke when the vast majority of RTJ4 is so at home with this grimier, louder setup. Opener yankee and the brave (ep. 4) sets the tone well in its calamitous grind that’s a much better approximation of what the ground below was arguably aiming for, and sets a benchmark of tone that’s malleable enough to be reshaped into the snarling, distorted beat of out of sight that still retains a lot of rubbery colour, or the industrial bleakness of never look back, stripping back the mood cultivated from the Ho99o9 sample on walking in the snow to something even colder and harsher. It’s a diverse-sounding album, but it never loses sight of the grounding it creates for itself, and that lends an extra peripheral dimension to the trap production of JU$T or the guitar echos of pulling the pin that’s great connective tissue with regards to the album as a whole. And as for a few words for the firing squad (radiation), with the constant swell of pianos, drums, strings and winding jazz saxophone that clearly wants to be the all-encompassing final moment, Run The Jewels really do nail it, even if the Yankee and The Brave skit for a coda probably would’ve been better as its own thing.
But on the whole, when most criticisms that can be made are nitpicks don’t even detract too heavily even when they’re there, RTJ4 is another stunningly vital and powerful album from a duo whose seat among modern hip-hop’s top table is in no danger of being usurped any time soon. Its legitimate anger and frustration is perfectly justified, but the intelligence and eloquence that comes from two veterans of the genre is ultimately what turns this into more than just a protest album; there’s longevity here beyond the fire that it’s stoking right this moment. And that’s a sign of great conscious hip-hop, something that’s always been applicable to Run The Jewels right from the start, and seems to be showing no signs of waning or slowing down, even in a volatile time where that could’ve easily been the case. But for the fourth time in a row, Run The Jewels have come out swinging, with a verve and passion that’s more important now than ever.
For fans of: Aesop Rock, Czarface, Cannibal Ox
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘RTJ4’ by Run The Jewels is out now on Jewel Runners / BMG Rights Management.