Album Review: RTJ4 – Run the Jewels
William Thorton reviews the latest record from frenetic hip-hop duo Run the Jewels
On May 25th 2020, George Floyd was murdered by four police officers in Minnesota. Five days later on the 30th of May, rapper Killer Mike delivered a hugely emotional speech on public television, in which he condemns what is now another statistic in the long list of cases where white American police officers have killed a black civilian over absolutely nothing. When watching this speech, it was made clear to me how much this incident tore apart the rapper, and the vivid and brutally expressive language he uses to describe how he felt waking up on the morning after Floyd’s death only went to show why Killer Mike is one of the best rappers alive. “I’m mad as hell. I woke up wanting to see the world burn yesterday, because I’m tired of seeing black men die. He casually put his knee on a human being’s neck for nine minutes as he died like a zebra in the clutch of a lion’s jaw.” These are the words Killer Mike used to describe the rage he felt at seeing another black man die to uncaring police officers, and it is this rage that fuels Run the Jewels’ latest album, RTJ4.
Back from a four-year hiatus after their last album, Run the Jewels 3, MC Killer Mike and rapper-producer EL-P have sprung back onto the hip-hop scene, at what is perhaps the most important time to do so. Two days before the scheduled release of RTJ4, the duo updated their website with the following words: “Fuck it, why wait. The world is infested with bullshit so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all”, and released their new album. With that, Run the Jewels perfectly demonstrated why they are at the head of the political music game.
Lyrics that perfectly encapsulate his feelings towards police brutality and the events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement
The choice of the word “raw” to describe RTJ4 is no coincidence, as above all else that’s the immediate feel I got from listening to the album. Straight off the bat the duo come in with the opening ‘yankee and the brave (ep.4)’, a song that instantly reminds fans why we love Run the Jewels, as the track is as a perfect demonstration of why the Killer Mike and EL-P duo is an absolutely incredible combination. The rapping of Killer Mike is brilliant, with his opening barrage of assonance and interior rhyme working in perfect coordination with the harsh drums and generally razor-sharp production of EL-P. The track is a great opener to the album, and serves as a demonstration of what to expect from the rest of the songs. The next tracks all work in a similar manner, combining scathingly satirical lyrics with top-notch production (with a couple of great features from the likes of 2 Chainz and Greg Nice too), with the previously-released single ‘ooh la la’ being one of my favourite tracks on the album.
The track ‘walking in the snow’ is where Killer Mike really demonstrates his skills as a politically-charged rapper, writing lyrics that perfectly encapsulate his feelings towards police brutality and the events surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. He raps “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’”, lines which were in fact written before the murder of George Floyd, referring instead to Eric Garner’s death in 2014, which just goes to show how awful the situation in America is that these lyrics can refer to multiple instances of police brutality in the U.S. police force. It’s no surprise now why Kendrick Lamar gave a shout-out of appreciation to Killer Mike in his 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, as the themes and motifs of said album (as well as Kendrick’s expression of admiration for Mike’s lyrical talent) go hand in hand with the feelings of rage and frustration Mike expresses in RTJ4.
The rest of the album continues just as perfectly as it began, with everything after ‘walking in the snow’ being just as sharp and precise as the first half of the album, with tracks like ‘JU$T’, ‘the ground below’, and the absolutely incredible closing track ‘a few words for the firing squad (radiation)’ being some of the best songs on the album, and in my opinion some of the best songs Run the Jewels have ever put out.
And with that it’s over. The forty-minute length of RTJ4 is absolutely perfect in my opinion, and is one of the biggest reasons as to why I enjoyed this album much more than their previous one, as the album is so tight and perfectly constructed that there’s little-to-no slack throughout the whole runtime (one of my few problems with Run the Jewels 3). All of this just proves that Run the Jewels really do just keep getting better and better with each project they put out, with no sign of stopping. And I’m absolutely not complaining.