Run the Jewels are Back, Better, and More Relevant Than Ever on RTJ4
The dynamic duo of Killer Mike and El-P establishes yet again why they are modern rap music's finest pairing. It's another thrilling, much needed slab of hardcore hip-hop.
Originally published on 6/10/20.
Michael Render and Jaime Meline – better known as Killer Mike and El-P, respectively – have risen from individual staples of underground rap to mainstream success as the most important rap duo of the past decade. As Run the Jewels, Render and Meline have spent the past several years delivering pure anarchy in the form of hip-hop; every album so far has masterfully paired loud, bass-heavy production with lyrics that strike a consistent balance between hilarious braggadocio, anti-establishment attitude, and satisfying diatribes against social injustice.
The two rap figureheads first collaborated in 2012 on Killer Mike’s excellent solo effort R.A.P. Music, with every song being produced by El-P; the success of this collaboration led the two to form Run the Jewels shortly afterwards. Their self-titled debut, released in 2013, blew the gates open with immediate chemistry between Render and Meline, combining the latter’s chaotic beats with both men’s seemingly endless supply of quotable lyrics. The following year, though, the even better Run the Jewels 2 exhibited more varied concepts, darker production, perfectly placed features, and lyrics that focused more on social issues and police brutality. (Hilariously, there was also a subsequent remix album with beats made entirely out of cat sounds, naturally titled Meow the Jewels.) A while later, the pair returned with Run the Jewels 3, a sprawling album that expanded their focus on these problems even further.
RTJ4, the duo’s latest, comes at an extremely chaotic time for America; at the time of this review’s posting, widespread protests are continuing to rage across the whole country after George Floyd’s brutal, horrific murder at the hands of police officers. Protests against police brutality and systemic racism are obviously nothing new, but America has never seen anything like this before. The protests have even spread to other continents, including Europe, Australia, and Asia. On top of this, hundreds upon hundreds of sickening videos of cops assaulting and brutalizing peaceful protestors have been constantly surfacing on social media, only fueling the rightfully-placed anger so many are feeling right now. The incredible scale of the protests make one thing absolutely clear: Enough is enough. Change is going to happen whether you like it or not.
The timing of RTJ4’s release is both chilling and absolutely perfect; based on what’s happening right now, it could not possibly have come at a better time. In fact, Run the Jewels decided to release it for free two days early in response to the protests, saying on social media: “Fuck it, why wait. The world is infested with bullshit so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all.” A new Run the Jewels project is always exciting, but right now it feels – it is – more necessary than ever. But does it deliver? Does it live up to the hype?
RTJ4 is, simply put, the best Run the Jewels album to date. And considering how great their run has been up to this point, that’s really saying a lot. It stands as their most effective, cohesive, best-produced, and refined effort yet, all while continuing to showcase the chemistry that made them such a fantastic supergroup in the first place. Endlessly listenable, gratifyingly compact, and absolutely necessary, RTJ4’s effect is immediate and powerful, more so than ever before. (It has their strongest feature list, too.)
First of all, the production. As on every Run the Jewels album so far, it is uniformly excellent; El-P produces every song on the record with help from lesser-known beatmaker brothers Little Shalimar and Wilder Zoby. The beats on RTJ4 continue the trend of heavy, bassy, hard-hitting instrumentals that sound like futuristic boom bap. However, this time around, they’re a touch more varied than usual. “JU$T” is one of the most minimal beats ever to show up on a Run the Jewels album, yet it’s also among the best you’ll find on RTJ4. There’s not much more than a consistent smooth bass pump, sparse percussion, and a vocal synth line, yet it all comes together in typical El-P fashion: effective, memorable, and direct. “the ground below” flips a sample from a song by seminal post-punk band Gang of Four and adds new drums to it; a concept that, yes, has been done countless times already and, yes, been a complete failure more often than not. Here, though, the drums perfectly complement and enhance the sample, bringing it all together like clockwork. Elsewhere, “ooh la la” goes full-on boom bap, complete with heavy kick drum and punchy snare, as El-P updates the classic hip-hop sound with his signature effects and synth flourishes.
As previously mentioned, another one of RTJ4’s many strengths is the feature list. Now, any Run the Jewels fan will tell you that there is nary a weak feature in their discography, but on RTJ4, they’re better than ever. Just about every single one of these features is utilized flawlessly, resulting in some of the best crossovers in Run the Jewels’ history. On “out of sight,” veteran rapper 2 Chainz makes an appearance and drops a killer, braggadocious verse that compliments those of Render and Meline very well. “JU$T” sees Pharrell Williams and Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha – yes, you read that right – sharing space on the same song. The former handles the pre-chorus before handing it off to Killer Mike, who repeats the album’s best and most memorable hook: “Look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar.” Meanwhile the latter pounces on the tail end of the track and steals the show with an absolutely fire verse; there’s a reason why he keeps showing up on Run the Jewels albums.
The best feature combination, though, decidedly falls on “pulling the pin.” Over dark, despondent production, Killer Mike and El-P trade verses lamenting personal struggles with vices, as well as the corrupt government’s treatment of the poor and its subsequent effect on one’s mental health. Throughout, Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme provides a minimal bed of guitars, enhancing the depressive feel of the song and sending chills down the listener’s spine with his cavernous layered vocals in the background. These chills are only intensified when R&B legend Mavis Staples comes through on the hook, her performance encapsulating every bit of emotion and weariness demonstrated throughout the song. An unlikely collaboration, yes. But it could not possibly have come out better.
Now when I said RTJ4’s timing was perfect, I really, truly meant it. There are many cases in which this is apparent – the continued takedowns of the powers that be come to mind, though sadly those may never be irrelevant – but nowhere is it clearer or more disturbing than on “walking in the snow.” While El-P’s verse showcases the usual Run the Jewels brand of satisfyingly ripping apart classism and injustice (this is not to besmirch his verse, by the way, as it is top-notch), Killer Mike’s verse hits much harder. With every bit of fury we usually get from the man, Render rips apart police brutality, media coverage of such acts, and many Americans’ reaction to it: “…Every day on evening news they feed you fear for free / And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / Until 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 / But truly the travesty, you’ve been robbed of your empathy.” These select lines surely would have resonated no matter what, but after the murder of George Floyd, they have become downright chilling; the words “I can’t breathe” were originally used as a reference to the senseless killing of Eric Garner in 2014, but George Floyd would later use those same three words as he helplessly pleaded for his life while ex-cop Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. As a result, this verse’s effectiveness has been increased tenfold. It’s honestly scary how well-timed – and thus powerful – this all is.
Despite how amazing the vast majority of RTJ4 is, though, there are a few issues, albeit scattered ones, that prevent it from being a perfect album. For one, the hook on “goonies vs. E.T.” is by far the weakest here; it’s too sparse for it to be very effective, and the pitched-down delivery doesn’t help. Elsewhere, while Gangsta Boo’s appearance on “walking in the snow” is excellent, she pretty much just handles the hook, and I can’t help but wish she was given a little more to do on the track. There’s also a part of me that would have preferred the otherwise masterful “pulling the pin” to have ended less abruptly; perhaps just another sixteen bars of instrumentation would have given the song the finality it deserves. Lastly, the album’s final track ends with a faux opening theme for Run the Jewels, a rather silly moment that sounds like the title sequence for an animated series based on the duo (which, frankly, I would absolutely love to see). While it is a nice ending to RTJ4, and it does tie up the album pretty well, it also somewhat undercuts the incredibly serious content that immediately preceded it, and can therefore come off as unnecessary.
These problems are few and far between, though, and they don’t stop RTJ4 from being the best entry in Run the Jewels’ discography so far, as well as one of the greatest rap albums I’ve heard in quite some time. By turns funny, witty, intelligent, pissed off, and downright harrowing, RTJ4 is so much more than just “something raw to listen to;” it’s precisely what we as a nation need right now. And it’s destined to become a future document of our dire and desperate times. It’s not necessarily anything new; at its core, it’s really more of what we’ve come to expect from Run the Jewels. But as long as these two rap veterans keep giving us top-notch hip-hop full of quotable swagger, endless conviction, and riotous social commentary, they can keep putting out the same old thing until they retire for all I care. You know what they say: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Listen to RTJ4 on Apple Music or Spotify below.