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Album of the Year #24: Run The Jewels - RTJ4Artist: Run The Jewels Album: RTJ4 Date Released: June 3rd, 2020 Listen YouTube Spotify Tidal Apple Music Artist Background The duo consisting of Atlanta rapper Killer Mike , and legendary underground producer/MC El-P , known together as Run The Jewels, originally came together as a result of Adult Swim executiveJason DeMarco who introduced the two in 2011. After his 2011 album PL3DGE peaked at #115 on the US charts, Killer Mike told Jason that he wanted to make his ownAmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. Jason informed Mike, “If you want AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted modernized, the only producer I know who comes close to the Bomb Squad-level of production is El-P”. The duo’s chemistry was immediate, as El-P went on to produce all of Killer Mike’s 2012 last solo albumR.A.P. Music, and Mike featured on El-P’s final solo albumCancer 4 Cure. Mike and El’s respective albums released within a week of each other in May 2012, and the two embarked on a twenty-city US tour in the following months. After returning from tour, the pair had found a friendship growing between themselves, and made the decision to put other projects on hold and focus on the chemistry that had been sparked. Recording at an upstate NY studio beginning in April 2013, the duo re-appropriated the phrase “Run The Jewels” from the LL Cool J track“Cheesy Rat Blues" , and released their self-titled collaborative album, for free via digital download, only a mere 2 months later in June 2013. 36” Chain vs. Pistol & Fist Run The Jewels discography currently exists in a distinct pairing. With Run The Jewels as their debut, this record set the group's tone as a light-hearted, braggadocious duo with as much confidence in their abilities as swag in their punchlines. Just over a year later, the sequelRun The Jewels 2 took the foundation set from their freshman effort and dialed the insanity up to 11. RTJ2 pushed the boundaries of their aggression and flows to new heights; with incredible energy in their verses, and absolutely impeccable beats, blending El-P’s signature industrial sound with sharp synth arpeggios, chopped Zach De La Rocha vocals, and absolutely bonkers Travis Barker drums. It was then nearly 3 years before Jamie and Mike followed up their breakout RTJ2, withRun The Jewels 3 being released again ahead of its scheduled release date via free digital download, this time on Christmas Eve 2016. Instead of these two attempting to outdo the pure insanity and in-your-face attitude found in their predecessor, Mike and El decide to evolve themselves as a group. The duo had noticeably pulled back on the swag and dick jokes which made such a splash on RTJ2, instead choosing a more subdued, electronic approach to their beats, as well as a clearly stronger political approach in their lyrics. This change in sound and style is demonstrated in the album cover’s artwork. The first two records featured the distinctive RTJ “Pistol and Fist”, with the fist tightly gripping a chain. The chain, in my opinion, represents the swag and braggadocio that drove the aggressive nature of their first two albums. In RTJ3 the chain is removed, leaving only hands that have transformed from bleeding and bandaged, to a pristine gold. This brings us to early 2020. It’s been nearly 4 years of living in a post-Trump America, and El-P announces that Run The Jewels fourth record has been completed. Mike and El live-stream the first single “yankee and the brave” on Instagram on March 22nd, 2020. Lyrically and sonically,RTJ4 exists as the successor toRun The Jewels 3, with Mike and El again taking the good from their previous effort and launching it into the creative stratosphere. El-P’s beats are again leaning towards the synthetic, electronic side, this time with the intensity dialed all the way up to 11. From a lyrical perspective, RTJ takes the politically-charged lyrics from their predecessor, and again, up the ante, laying down some of the hardest hitting and politically poignant bars either of these two have ever spit. Album Review 2020 was a year that none of us will soon forget. An unprecedented global health crisis kept the majority of us inside for months at a time.RTJ4 was announced on May 12th, 2020, with a release date slated for June 5th, 2020. However, with 2020 as the gift that won’t stop giving, the end of May was highlighted by the unjust killing of George Floyd. The phrase heard around the world, “I can’t breathe” instantly became a rally-cry for the oppressed to finally take to the streets to demand systemic police reform, as Floyd’s death was not the first time this phrase was uttered in an unjust police killing. In fact, a 2020 study by the New York Times showed thatat least 70 people have died in police custody after using the same phrase over the past decade . As millions of American’s began organizing protests and demonstrations in the wake of Floyd’s death, Run The Jewels made the decision to release their latest chapter two days ahead of the scheduled release. El-P tweeted, just minutes ahead of the drop, “Fuck it, why wait. 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. Stay safe and hopeful out there and thank you for giving 2 friends the chance to be heard and do what they love”. In line with all past Run The Jewels releases, the album was made available for free digital download, two days ahead of its scheduled release date, on June 3rd, 2020. THE RETURN (we don’t mean no harm but we truly mean all the disrespect) RTJ4 opens with the first single, “yankee and the brave (ep. 4)”. Using the team names from their respective hometown baseball teams, Mike and El use the opening track to prove that they’re not just a hip-hop duo, they’re brothers, for better or worse. El-P kicks this installment off with rapid-fire, machine-gun esque snares, matching Killer Mike’s aggressive flow and tightly packed rhymes, before El jumps in to trade some dense rhymes as well. Mike and El depict themselves as outlaws, with Mike surrounded by cops with only one bullet remaining. He contemplates suicide instead of allowing the police to take him alive, until El-P jumps back in, offering Mike a way out, with a getaway car waiting outside. This tense situation is depicted lightheartedly in this song’smusic video , which was released via Adult Swim and features the duo animated. The trade-off between Mike and El’s short verses are reminiscent of late-80’s EPMD flows, while the production sounds like boom-bap that’s been sent to us from the future. This distinctive blend of old-school rap roots and forward thinking production is what continues to separate Run The Jewels from absolutely all of their contemporaries. While so many artists are continually playing catch-up with the latest trends, RTJ are side-stepping the trendy and moving forward with the mind-bending. FLEXIN’ (ayo one for mayhem, two for mischief) The second single “ooh la la” samples a Gang Star track "DWYCK (feat. Nice & Smooth)" as the basis for the chorus. I say “samples” as that’s how it is credited in the album’s liner notes, however it’s truly an interpolation of Greg Nice’s bar, slowed down slightly, and sung by El-P and Greg Nice himself. El-P is a true old-head at heart, and it’s abundantly obvious in his work, even going as far as to recruit legendary producerDJ Premiere to handle the scratching on the back end of this banger. Out of key piano chords are looped to quickly create an unsettling aura surrounding the track, before El-P’s voice cuts through the infectious piano like a whip. Pounding, up-tempo drums are introduced after the chorus’ first iteration, creating what is possibly El-P’s first danceable beat. Lyrically, Mike and El-P initially seem scattered on this track, however themusic video quickly makes their point very obvious. ”we imagined the world on the day that the age old struggle of class was finally over. a day that humanity, empathy and community were victorious over the forces that would separate us based on arbitrary systems created by man. this video is a fantasy of waking up on a day that there is no monetary system, no dividing line, no false construct to tell our fellow man that they are less or more than anyone else. not that people are without but that the whole meaning of money has vanished. that we have somehow solved our self created caste system and can now start fresh with love, hope and celebration. its a dream of humanity’s V-DAY… and the party we know would pop off.” The video envisions a society celebrating the fact that the class system we currently exist within has finally imploded. Money is worthless, and we have rejected the desire to bind ourselves to the constraints of capitalism. All creeds and colors unite to burn the system that has so effectively controlled us for over a century. It’s a party, and if there was a song to celebrate the end of the world as it is currently known, “ooh la la” is that song. Mike’s last verse features a few metaphors and comparisons celebrating the destruction of capitalism, saving the most poignant for last: I used to love Bruce, but livin' my vida loca Helped me understand I'm probably more of a Joker When we usher in chaos, just know that we did it smiling Cannibals on this island, inmates run the asylum Premo’s expertly cut scratches lead us into the equally hard hitting sample flip of“Misdemeanor”, by Foster Stevens as the basis for the beat to “out of sight”. Lending yet another nod to the old-school greats that laid the foundation for RTJ, “out of sight” samples the same track asThe D.O.C.’s “It’s Funky Enough” , only adding a bouncy, electronic synth atop the inverted chord hits, and uptempo, industrial drums, to create an absolutely infectious groove for Mike and El’s dynamic chemistry to shine, rapidly jumping between each other’s two line flows in the first verse. “out of sight” shows each MC providing insight into how each of them earned a living and achieved their current status. Mike and El’s opening verse each details themselves robbing people in order to eat. El alludes to the fact that he crossed his accomplices in crime for the whole bag, while Mike details the fact his assailant tells him it’s an “honor” to be robbed by his mother’s only son. While El-P’s production is the obvious stand out on first listen, Killer Mike comes through with one of the most sonically pleasing and technically proficient verses of 2020. We the motivating, devastating, captivating Ghost and Rae relating product of the fuckin' '80s Coke dealin' babies, never regulating, bag accumulating It would not be overstating to say they are underrating The pride of Brooklyn and the Grady, baby We don't need no compliments or confidence Our attitude and latitude is "fuck you, pay me" The dense, intricate rhyme schemes smack you in the face, almost distracting you from Mike’s delivery and blistering flow on the verse; flexing his legendary status while paying homage to his drug-dealing past. This absolutely stunning display of technical skill, story telling, and complex rhyming illustrates how RTJ seamlessly integrates the best of both old school and new school hip-hop. “out of sight” also features a guest verse from 2 Chainz, and he continues to lay the braggadocio onthick. Considering Tity Boi’s dedication to trap stylings, his verse feels right at home on the flex track, despite it’s late 80’s tribute sample, a considerable departure from his usual sound palette. Up until this point, I haven’t mentioned any of the El-P’s lyrics specifically. El-P is a great rapper, but Killer Mike… Well, Killer Mike is an incredible rapper. He’s the guy who draws you in. El-P is the one who lays the foundation for greatness and Mike is the show stopper, and that’s generally the case for most RTJ tracks. But on “holy calamafuck”, El-P seems determined to make people stop and ask, “Who thefuck is this?!”. A sharp, yet nearly minimalistic drum kit backing a heavily distorted synthesizer melody lays beneath rhymically knocking cow-bells. This aggressively set stage allows Mike and El to flex as the dynamic duo they are, until the beat suddenly takes a turn for the chaotic. A gnarled, ultra-menacing synth overtakes everything while Mike screams into the abyss, until a distorted snare, enormous 808s, and skeletal hi-hats cut through and launch the beat switch into another dimension. The minimal, yet incredibly dark soundscape allows El-P to snap in a way I have never heard from him previously. His rhymes schemes are reminiscent of an old MF DOOM lyric notebook, while his topics flawlessly combine flexing, psychedelic use, and his well-cemented legacy in the hip-hop community. Cutting and pasting a few of his bars into this review could not convey a fraction of how stunning El-P’s performance on “holy calamafuck” is. Slightly later in the track list, making liberal use of the Ether song “Gang of Four” , “the ground below” samples and loops the sharp guitar riff and adds aggressive, pounding drums as the basis for the beat; this is finally reminiscent of the forward-thinking, stridulous production El-P has built his reputation on. Capitalising on the classic RTJ moment, Mike and El both flex in their own unique ways. Mike compares himself to Godzilla taking on Tokyo, and El-P demands respect for his name as the legend he is, threatening to smack dying children for mispronouncing his name with his middle finger to the world; his complete disregard for human life and confidence in his abilities are summed up at the end of his verse. You see a future where Run the Jewels ain’t the shit Cancel my Hitler-killing trip Turn the time machine back around a century SO¢IAL JU$T-ICE (until my voice go from a shriek to whisper...) While the first few tracks aren’t without their social and political themes, the back-end ofRTJ4 is where Mike and El start to bust out the heavy topics. “goonies vs. E.T.”. starts off light, with El-P pointing to the irony of how once he finally started to make it “big” in the industry, the world began to descend into chaos due to climate changes, increasingly obvious social injustice, and political madness. He culminates his frustration with our disregard for the Earth with a fantastic quotable. Fuck y’all got, another planet on stash? Far from the fact of the flames and our trash That is not snow, it is ash, and you gotta know The past got a wrath, it’s a lover gone mad Mike’s verse takes the light-hearted frustration expressed by El-P, and turns the aggression to the next level. Aiming his sights against the ruling class and their society that’s been designed to oppress people for profit, who have very meticulously painted themselves as celebrities and idols to the American public. Mike accepts that he will be villainized by these people for speaking against them, but he welcomes the nefarious role, knowing that the working class will eventually eat the rich, no matter how much they are stomped into the dirt. And this is just the warmup. If it’s possible for a song to represent a moment in time that captures the absolute shit storm that has been 2020, “walking in the snow” is that song. It’s release coincided perfectly with the protests for George Floyd which were sweeping the nation. Killer Mike’s verse directly references the phrase “I can’t breathe”, the last words of Eric Garner, which also happened to be the last words of Floyd as well. The fact that this verse was reportedly written in November 2019 perpetually underscores the importance of the content and perfectly represents how persistent this problem is. “walking in the snow” is a true encapsulation of both a defining moment in time and an ever-persisting issue. But he doesn’t just stop at the racial injustice. Mike goes on an absolute rant about the American education system; how it’s not designed to teach people, but to discriminate against poor populations, limiting their legitimate opportunities, and therefore disproportionately leading them into a criminal lifestyle. He calls out the media as fear-mongers, and the apathy of the American public in the face of indecency. Fortunately for Mike, by the time we finally had the chance to hear this masterpiece, we were already on our feet, using this album as a war cry to mobilize against a tyrannical government that militarized against its own citizens simply for asking that we recognize systemic racism and demanding change. Killer Mike has thebest verse of the year , no doubt in my mind. The only drawback is that Mike’s verse is so fucking good that it completely overshadows El-P’s, which is also amazing. A menacing guitar riff and haunting synths kick the track off into a bouncy groove, where El-P unleashes a flurry of internal rhymes that does not relent for about half his verse. Even adding layers of social commentary within the densely packed bars, El refuses to quit and continues on his political tirade; criticizing ICE’s detainment center practices and the “pseudo-Christians” who support them, with a bar that now lives in my head: Pseudo-Christians, y’all indifferent, kids in prison ain’t a sin? Shit if even one scrap of what Jesus taught connected you’d feel different what a disingenuous way to piss away existence, I don’t get it I’d say you lost your goddamn minds if y’all possessed one to begin with The combination of two of the best verses spit by any rapper(s) this year and production help from El-P and long time RTJ collaboratorLittle Shalimar , create a bouncy, aggressive, deeply truthful banger. “walking in the snow” not only encapsulates the crux of 2020 with lyrics that will become more powerful as they age, but will also forever be associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and the determination to expose continuing racial and societal injustices. The sonic palette of RTJ4 holds an extremely unique place in El-P’s discography. Jamie is the definition of a self-made 90’s hip-hop legend. This is the dude who put New York underground hip-hop on the map withCompany Flow , and he did it with his unique flavor of dark, noisy, dense, boom-bap. Whether he was doing it with the help ofRawkus , or completely independently during his Definitive Jux run, El-P has never made music with the intention of becoming famous . Funcrusher Plus, Fantastic Damage,I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, and Cancer 4 Cure are all highly revered as industrial, technical, abrasive, and completely unsuitable for the radio or a party. The fact that three songs onRTJ4 could easily be heard on the radio, at a party, orin a TV series credits scene is frankly, astounding. In a 2002 interview/documentary on El-P’s budding record label Def Jux, he stated that his friend bet him $500 that he could not make a beat that was “happy”. At the time of the interview, El-P said that he had not won that bet yet. While I might not qualify the beats onRTJ4 as “happy”, if you showed El-P the beat for “JU$T” in 2002, I believe he might have won that bet. Pharell opens “JU$T” with the pre-chorus, spitting varied examples of how we’re all slaves to our current system throughout the track, over echoing snares and bouncy 808s before bright synth chords and up-tempo hi-hats burst in while Killer Mike delivers the chorus, pointing to the fact that the majority of the people featured on American currency owned slaves at one point in their lives. Mike’s verse touches on the fact that he has committed crimes to get where they are today. Mike is publicly open about his past as a drug dealer. So why is he a criminal, but Benjamin Franklin isn’t? These are the people who built our country, and they built it on the backs of slaves. He illustrates this theme with a more recent examples: You believe corporations runnin marijuana? Ooh (how that happen?) and your country gettin ran by a casino owner (ooh) pedophiles sponsor all these fuckin’ racist bastards (they do) When corporations are able to sell cannabis legally, but the government continually incarcerates people who trap, our president is a notoriously fraudulent businessman, and the people who helped put him in power run a pedophile ring, yet none of them face consequences and are allowed to continue to profit and remain in power while people suffer; well, we might be closer to slaves than previously imagined. Rage Against The Machine frontman Zach de la Rocha also makes his mandatory feature appearance at the end of “JU$T”. As the only artist to feature on three Run The Jewels albums, Zach is essentially an unofficial member of the group at this point. His fiery verse is spit with the same “Rage” energy that set him apart in the mid-90’s, ending the track questioning his place in a capitalist society as a recipe for his inevitable demise, since his “breath”, or art, as his weapon to express himself is still being exploited for other’s profit. Continuing with RTJ4’s heavily synthetic sonic palette, “never look back” features wavering synth leads resting above the slow-jams snappy snares and thumping bass, while a haunting voice echoes in the background. This unsettling aura provides additional gravity for Jamie and Mike to continue self-reflecting on defining moments in their childhood, and as well as how far they’ve come from those moments. Mike and El are both self-made men, and while they have a certain fondness for those gritty moments that defined them, moving forward in life is undoubtedly more important. Skeletal drums reminiscent of a slowly pounding heart opens “pulling the pin”, before rhythmic hi-hats and textured, watery synths fluttering in the upper register resting above a bouncy synth lead, and punchy 808s, burst in. The track digs itself into a slower, marching groove and shows the duo figuratively doing exactly what the title implies. Painting a portrait of a society that has turned on itself, Mike and El are ready to pull the pin and start over. The duo both detail their despise for the ruling class, pointing out multiple examples of how the elite have designed our society to keep poor people in their class. Simultaneously recognizing their own hypocrisy for profiting in a system that inherently discriminates; Mike reflects on his own success, knowing that living the lifestyle he enjoys is one built on oppression, and expresses the guilt that has caused him. El-P opens with a brutal metaphor for police, implying that they’re the root cause of the “wretched state of danger” our society exists within, and that the only effective corrective action is to numb yourself with drugs. Despite his advice, Jamie knows this is not a permanent solution, but one that causes more self-inflicted wounds. The final piece of the puzzle that is RTJ4, “a few words for the firing squad” begins to close the album with ever crescending strings, and loud, thunderous drums which never seem to resolve, continuing throughout their verses. While the drums that lead to nowhere can be sonically unpleasant, the unresolved melodies are intentionally representative of their current mindsets. Their verses are reflective and grim, but simultaneously optimistic and envisions a world where tragedy is a less common occurrence. El is grateful for what he has now but recognizes his entire life has been skewed by traumas, so out of place feels normal for him. He reflects on his current success, noting that the worst people tend to end up with the most, which makes becoming “rich” something not as desirable as it once was. Mike opens up about the death of his mother who died while he was on an airplane, admitting his struggles to not cope with his trauma with opioids. However, his wife provides him the most important reason to stay clean “but my queen/say she need a king/not another junkie rapper fiend” while a heartbreaking saxophone solo highlights the gravity of his lyrics. The track ends with what sounds the like wrap-up voiceover to a TV show, a conceptually satisfying ending, as the opening track “yankee and brave (ep.4)” began with El-P stating: ”This week, on Yankee and The Brave” This voiceover paints the duo as brothers on the run from the law and crooked cops, and while this does close this “episode” out as intended, the critic in me is bothered by the slightly kitschy outro to such a spectacular album. The voices singing over and over, “Brave, brave, braaaaaave, Yankee and the Brave” would be, simply put, better left on the cutting room floor. The ending of this track alone is what knocks my score of this album down a few points. Despite its stellar lyrical content, with drums that never seem to reach that “holy shit!” moment, and the easily skippable outro, it’s upsetting to me that an albumthis great ends on such a low note. Overview RTJ4 is by far my favorite album of the year. El-P’s cutting edge approach to their sound, blended with lyrical content that continues to be more relevant by the day, the duo have come together with what is objectively their most accessible album to date.RTJ4 is the natural evolution of sound and subject matter for the duo; taking the foundation set byRun The Jewels 3 and evolving it into a more concise, more accessible, and more conceptual album. While I still personally prefer the “fuck the world” intensity and experimental nature ofRun The Jewels 2, RTJ4 opens themselves up to a whole new world of exposure, and when you’re as talented as these two, you know they’re going to capitalize on it. RTJ is currently at their apex, and they’ve created an album that will make many new life-long fans going forward. 9.2/10 Discussion Points * How does this compare to other RTJ releases? How about in comparison to the member’s solo works? * Does the overwhelmingly positive critical reception of this album surprise you? * How will this be looked back on in 5 years? * What are your favorite lyrics?