The first rhyme comes out of Killer Mike like a war cry: “Back at it/Like a crack addict” and it’s followed by a series of repetitive percussion given to us by El-P. You can call it a beat, but I’m calling it war drums. It sends out a clear message: Run The Jewels have returned. And we couldn’t need them more.
With RTJ4, the first album from the political/comical/wonderful hip-hop supergroup in four years, comes at a time of chaos and change. Our nation watched as a Minneapolis police station burned days ago. As I write this, the news is covering how Washington D.C. had the words “BLACK LIVES MATTER” painted on the street leading up to the White House. Some of our political leaders, including the President, are calling for the military to arrest (or worse) protesters. Yet, through it all, we see the light of change starting to shine through. It’s a scary time, but it had to be in order to confront some of the horrors we have seen. And RTJ knew that these times needed their album, which is why they chose to release it two days early (and for free, or with suggested donations to charities).
So, what did Killer Mike and El-P give us?
For starters, the music is incredible. El-P, working with such talents as DJ Premier, Dave Sitek, Boots, and Josh Homme, has given us rhythms and beats that are as good as anything he’s delivered before. The music is jarring, and it’s meant to hit us like a sledgehammer. Yeah, RTJ can be a dance party, but it’s one that you have to do with a fist in the air because you never know when you’re gonna need it.
Lyrically, we get more of the same, but that’s so welcome right now. RTJ have a very clear style and flow; they have things to say and demand call to action, but do so while having a sense of humor about it. They’re like Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, except they are jokers for social justice and change. The lyric quoted the most in reviews comes from Mike’s verse in “Walking In The Snow”: “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”. When recorded, it was meant to be about Eric Garner. However, with the death of George Floyd, it has new relevance. New outrage.
And they don’t just stop there. “Ju$t”, which features Pharrell and a seemingly-ageless Zach De La Rocha, features Mike reminding people he told people to “kill your master”, while admitting that he knows that is a lyric which might get him killed. That’s a song pointing out about how the rich control everything and begging people to step up and do something, anything, in order to see some change and equality.
With “Ooh LA LA”, however, RTJ give us an anthem for the post-revolution party. It reminds us that, when they want, Mike and El can give us a joyous and raucous celebration track. “Doin’ fine/You want maximum stupid?/I’m the guy” El-P spits out over a beat that’s fun but still has a dissonant piano to make sure we’re not celebrating too hard.
With RTJ4, these amazing rappers let us know that we’re in a bad place and there’s a lot of work to do. But, there’s enough hope to know that there’s going to be a fucking amazing party when things change for the better. And at the center of it will be two amazing friends and musicians giving us the music we want… and need.