Run the Jewels’ ‘RTJ4’: Album Review

Andrew Barker

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In light of the historic unrest that has gripped the nation since the police killing of George Floyd, there might be a temptation to describe “RTJ4” – the latest, and best, collaboration between rapper Killer Mike and rapper-producer El-P – as surprisingly prescient. The first full-length the odd-couple hip-hop duo has recorded in the Trump era, though obviously locked long before the country erupted in protest, the album contains multiple references to police brutality and racial and economic injustice, and was released early less than a week after Killer Mike put multiple elected leaders to shame with his honest, open-hearted words of righteous rage and reconciliation at an Atlanta press conference. But frankly, there’s no reason anyone should have been surprised: both men were predicting our current state of dystopian societal disintegration long before they joined forces.

If anything, Run the Jewels’ debut LP felt like something of a between-albums palette-cleanser back in 2013, as this initially unexpected pairing of hip-hop lifers — Mike the onetime OutKast protégé from Atlanta whose style splits the difference between Khujo and Stokely Carmichael; El the type of wiseass Brooklynite who can refer to himself as “the illest motherf—er since Oedipus” so casually you might miss the reference — temporarily eased up on the blistering social commentary that distinguished their solo careers for what amounted to an album’s worth of hilariously over-the-top threats and s— talk. By their second album they had elevated this to a fine art, and on their third, 2016’s “Run the Jewels 3,” they managed to introduce a bracing degree of depth and introspection, with tracks like the crushingly poignant “Thursday in the Danger Room” proving these two could wear their hearts on their sleeves at the same time they relieved you of your Rolex. But that album did more than just skillfully navigate these seemingly warring impulses, it found a common philosophical ground to synthesize them; as El rapped on the album’s closing track: “They talk clean and bomb hospitals / So I speak with the foulest mouth possible.”

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“RTJ4” continues along that same trajectory, doubling down on the open-veined sincerity and political urgency of its predecessor while still retaining all of the pugilistic vulgarity and what-me-worry swagger that made these middle-aged cult rappers such unlikely heroes to begin with. Viewed alongside the rest of their discography, the most immediately obvious evolutions on the album are sonic ones. As the group’s producer, El-P has found ingenious ways to lighten the mood while still always coming down on the side of dissonance. Here we find elements of dancehall anthems, Rick Rubin-style pavement crackers and old-school block-party bangers, the beats ever mutating and nodding to hip-hop’s roots while gazing steadily forward.

Above all, “RTJ4” is a triumph of all sorts of unexpected syntheses, seamlessly uniting disparate moods, styles and eras. That certainly goes for the album’s guest stars: Gospel legend Mavis Staples and hard-rock guitar hero Josh Homme combine beautifully on “Pulling the Pin,” while “Ju$t” sees the similarly odd couple of Pharrell Williams and Zack de la Rocha each taking turns with the song’s refrain — culminating with the incendiary line “Look at all these slave masters posin’ on your dollar.” And most of all that goes for Mike and El themselves. Listening to the two one-up each other in a lyrical dunk contest of increasingly elaborate insults and crime-scene scenarios has become one of modern hip-hop’s most consistent pleasures — in a less chaotic time, you could’ve expected to see bons mots from both men accompanied by fire emoji on social media for weeks. (In fact, you could’ve filled a whole thread with lines from the magnificently titled “Holy Calamaf—,” from Mike’s encounters with hypebeasts to El’s Karl Rovian dictum: “if you hate Run the Jewels, you don’t love the troops.”)

But for all the hydra-headed chemistry on display, some of the album’s most striking moments come from Run the Jewels’ diversity of perspectives as one of hip-hop’s preeminent multiracial partnerships. The despairingly insightful “Walking in the Snow” starts as El-P attempts to find some sort of sense in working-class white MAGA types supporting policies that will only hurt them in the end, only to give up the search by the verse’s last lines: “What a disingenuous way to piss away existence, I don’t get it / You lost your goddamn minds if y’all possessed one to begin with.” Following that, Mike offers a blistering sermon from the other side of the racial divide, weaving a rich tapestry of injustice that starts with inequities in public schooling and threads its way to police brutality and liberal white complacency: “You so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / Until my voice goes from a shriek to a whispered ‘I can’t breathe’ / And you sit there, in house, on couch, and watch it on TV / The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy.” (That this specific reference to Eric Garner would apply equally to yet another Black man choked to death by police for no reason just weeks before the album’s release is both ghastly and something that the song itself foresees.)

As he says elsewhere on the album, Killer Mike knows he’s lucky to have made it this far, in more ways than one. In an interview with GQ earlier this year, he noted: “Let’s just be real…two dudes who were born in 1975 are not supposed to be at the cutting edge of music.” And yet RTJ’s four-album run testifies otherwise. Their type of innovation may be miles removed from that of the teenagers posting homemade tracks to SoundCloud, but there’s a rare quality in Mike and El’s ability to push the genre forward without stepping on the toes of a younger generation, their veneration of classicist hip-hop virtues that never lapses into sour conservatism, their ability to reach the largest audiences of their long careers by only trying to impress each other. If Killer Mike and El-P haven’t yet fully ascended to that most rarefied plane of telepathically attuned hip-hop partnerships — Q-Tip and Phife, Prodigy and Havoc, Erick and Parrish — they’ve come extraordinarily close, which is a remarkable achievement for two men who were pushing 40 by the time they first worked together. You’d almost be tempted to call that inspiring, or heartwarming, or beautiful … if you knew that Run the Jewels wouldn’t clown you relentlessly for saying so.

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