Run the Jewels Capture Our Troubled Times Brilliantly with 'RTJ4' — but Police Brutality Is Sadly Always Relevant

BY Kyle MullinPublished Jun 5, 2020

Before the gruesome murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, before civil unrest boiled over in America, and before Killer Mike's heart wrenching speech to Atlanta protestors went viral, the Run the Jewels rapper penned seemingly prophetic lyrics about society's current unraveling for RTJ4.

Or he at least sounds palpably prescient on this essential new LP. Case in point: Mike's novelistic bars on opening track "yankee and the brave (ep. 4)," which finds him confronting cops waiting outside his door, as they falsify their cause of death report. The equally vitriolic lyrics and swiftly jabbing beat courtesy of El-P, Mike's producer and partner in Run the Jewels, only heighten the Atlanta MC's breathless delivery of such bruising subject matter. All that and more help Killer Mike evoke Muhammad Ali, both in and out of the ring — which is fitting, given the 1960s level of unrest erupting nationwide just before this album's release (prompting the duo to release it a few days early).

And yet, Mike has been writing such incendiary commentary for years. So, despite the surprising coincidence that RTJ4 was released within days of Floyd's death and the country's outcry, the clockwork nature of such police brutality in the news means his lyrics are always, tragically, timely. Mike maintains that long-held mission with RTJ4 tracks like "goonies vs. E.T." It finds him rhyming about accepting "the role of the villains 'cause we been villainized" over El-P's militant marching drums. The New York producer's droning instrumental on "walking in the snow," meanwhile, is reminiscent of a squad car's siren. That production proves an apt foil for Mike's viscerally academic bars about test scores streamlining black youth towards incarceration. Mike closes that song with a chilling reference to Eric Garner's killing in 2014, bitterly reminding listeners of how little progress has been made. Equally unnerving: "JU$T," where Mike muses about his dissident spitting leaving him prone to assassination.

Killer Mike's standout turn on "JU$T" is all the more impressive, given the star power rounding that track out. Pharrell Williams gives the song a hypnotically laconic hook about the subtleties of systemic racism. As if that weren't enough, Zack de la Rocha also reteams with Mike and El for this track (surely to the delight of fans enthralled by his retirement halting performance on Run the Jewels' landmark second album in 2014). The Rage Against the Machine frontman shrieks revolutionary screeds that will inspire any fired-up listener tempted to take to the streets in 2020. More interesting still: his chemistry with not only the Jewels duo but also a pop star like Williams.

El-P lyrically holds his own with those three outsized personalities on "JU$T," and alongside Mike's soul-baring rapping throughout RTJ4's taut 39-minute runtime. Fans will also love the schoolyard bully taunt El-P brings to single "ooh la la." The duo enjoy some well-deserved comic relief on that track, vying to one-up each other with the same kind of bare-knuckle punchlines that made their 2016 DJ Shadow collaboration "Nobody Speak" such a sleeper hit. Contributions from hip-hop vets like DJ Premier and Greg Nice help "ooh la la" seal the deal for hip-hop heads. However, El's rapping prowess is even more evident on "pulling the pin," on which he chillingly emotes like an award-worthy leading man.

That being said, the New York rapper-producer's greatest contribution to RTJ4 is his vivid and varied sonic backdrops. His on-point production offers the lyrically superior Killer Mike both space and sonic support as he rises to new heights of artistry and activism, making El-P the kind of ally worth emulating. Mike's lyrical dedications to the downtrodden and disenfranchised throughout RTJ4, meanwhile, amount to a fitting soundtrack for this fractured moment.
(Jewel Runners/BMG)

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