Run The Jewels 4 is the soundtrack to the revolution that we all needed – album review
And everyday on evening news they feed you fear for free
And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me
And till 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
Killer Mike recorded those lines in fall of 2019, but when the world heard them for the first time this week in the midst of nationwide protests against police brutality, it felt like the soundtrack of the current revolution. It's hard to know what exactly the role of music is in a time like this, but outspoken activists like Killer Mike and El-P have messages that need to be heard right now, and they knew releasing RTJ4 early could help in a time like this. "Fuck it, why wait," the duo wrote. "The world is infested with bullshit so here's something raw to listen to while you deal with it all. We hope it brings you some joy." They also gave the album away as a free download (as they've done with all three previous albums), and provided fans with a list of organizations to donate to that help in the fight for racial justice. They raised over $100,000 in the first ten hours and probably more since then.
"Walking in the Snow," the devastating, Gangsta Boo-featuring song that's home to the above lyrics, is far from the the only angry, fired-up song on this album. Every RTJ album has been great, but they haven't had this kind of energy since "Reagan" and they've got it for the length of the entire album. At 11 songs in 39 minutes, it's their second shortest album after their debut, but it feels like their shortest by far. The first time I heard it, I listened three times in a row and each time I couldn't believe how quickly I ended up on the last song. When your music is this urgent, this vital, it flies by.
It's not a coincidence that these songs resonate now even though they were written last year. George Floyd's death was not an isolated incident; the institutional racism that enables this type of brutality and injustice has existed for centuries. If we really are witnessing the resistance at its tipping point, that's only because smartphones, the internet, and the Black Lives Matter movement have helped amplify at an exponential rate how common these types of incidents are. It's also probably not a coincidence that Run The Jewels made this album now. This is the first record the duo wrote since Trump took office, and the last four years have clearly made Run The Jewels as angry as the rest of us. "Ain't no revolution is televised and digitized / You’ve been hypnotized and Twitter-ized by silly guys / Cues to the evening news, make sure you ill-advised / Got you celebrating the generators of genocide," Mike raps on "Goonies vs. E.T," and he sounds like a volcano on the verge of eruption. Mike's been anything but quiet since the last RTJ album, but it's been years since he spat this kind of venom.
Run The Jewels know these are long-standing issues, and they tell you on the album. "Now I see that it's the same moment in history back to haunt us," El raps on "Pulling The Pin," and when Mavis Staples belts the hook, it connects RTJ's music to the protest music of the civil rights era that Mavis herself helped create. That song, which was co-produced with Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme, also sounds musically inspired by the psychedelic soul of the '60s/'70s protest music era, viewed through a lens of modern-day hip hop.
In general, El's production on the album sounds as fired-up as the lyrics. A lot of these songs find him churning out some of the darkest, hardest, fastest beats of his career, and that's no small part of this album's quick momentum. It's not all loud and fast though, and it's not all one particular sound and style. RTJ brought in their tour DJ Trackstar the DJ and Cutmaster Swiff for golden age-style scratching, and the DJ Premier & Greg Nice-aided "Ooh La La" sounds straight out of the boom bap era, but RTJ4 also has El-P's trademark electronic futurism and it also has two different saxophonists (Antibalas member and in-demand collaborator Stuart Bogie on "Goonies vs. E.T." and Daptone artist Cochemea on album closer "A Few Words for the Firing Squad [Radiation]") giving it a live jazz band feel. RTJ4 pulls from a long history of music -- '90s icon Zack De La Rocha, who's appeared on the last two RTJ albums and whose band Rage Against the Machine were supposed to reunite and tour with RTJ this year, fits as well on this album as 2010s radio-rap everywhereman 2 Chainz -- and El-P and Killer Mike fuse it together in a way that sounds effortless.
RTJ4 isn't all protest and anger. Mike and El have been doing this a long time -- both together and separately -- and it continues to be impressive that Run The Jewels has turned into such a long-running, increasingly successful project, so they very much earn the bragging rights they display on this album too. "Every other goddamn year I'm brand new / It's been 20 plus years you think that's a clue?," El shout-raps on "Holy Calamafuck." "Maybe this guy kinda kills what he do." On "Out of Sight," Mike revels in the chemistry he and El have with an engine-revving tongue-twister: "We the motivating, devastating, captivating, Ghost and Rae relating product of the fuckin' '80s." El puts it more simply: "Our shit is just magic."
For all the loud, fired-up energy on this album though, the very best song is album closer "A Few Words for the Firing Squad (Radiation)" which finds the duo singing a different tune. They get sentimental and introspective over suspenseful, almost-drumless production, and secret weapon Cochemea's saxophone lines sound as impassioned as Run The Jewels' raps. Mike mournfully discusses his mother's death and growing up with the system rigged against him; El sings about his own family too, and when he dedicates the song to "the never heard, never even get a motherfuckin' word," it's enough to choke you up. And when El ends his final verse with "put the pistol and the fist up in the air, we are there, swear to God," sounding in solidarity with every last protester who's been on the street this week, it's enough to send the blood rushing through your entire body, giving you at least an ounce of hope that maybe we really will achieve something if we all keep fighting together.
RTJ4 is out now everywhere, including as a free download on RTJ's site, where you can also make a donation to the list of organizations that the duo is promoting. You can pre-order physical copies too.