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Review: 'RTJ4' is a rallying cry for a rising revolution

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The fourth Run the Jewels album is more than just another episode from the unstoppable duo of Killer Mike and El-P. It’s an album created for the people — the anthem to a budding revolution. 

Killer Mike and El-P preach with a righteous fury on “RTJ4,” verbally dismantling society on their first album since Trump took office. Their anger is more visceral and justified than ever. El-P’s production is in full force, paying tribute to the sounds of classic hip-hop acts like N.W.A. and Wu-Tang Clan while bringing influences from rock and metal acts into the mix. Tracks are raw and heavy, a switch-up from the synthwave beats of “Run the Jewels 3,” reflecting the darker lyrical material on the new album. 

The duo has shared their message time after time. Mike called upon fire and brimstone in “Talk to Me” from the last album. “I told y'all suckers, I told y'all suckers. I told y'all on RTJ1, then I told ya again on RTJ2, and you still ain't believe me. So here we go, RTJ3.” Now here they are again on “RTJ4,” fighting the same fight and no worse for wear.

"RTJ4" faced production delays, but still arrives with an unfortunately striking timeliness. Since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the country has erupted with Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and the systemic racism woven into the fabric of our government enabling it. While Michael Render, a.k.a. Killer Mike, has used his platform to beg for an end to the violence, he understood where the anger came from.

“I’m mad as hell,” Render said in the televised speech. “I woke up wanting to see the world burn down. I’m tired of seeing Black men die. He casually put his knee on a human being’s neck for nine minutes as he died like a zebra in the clutch of a lion’s jaw, and we watch it like murder porn, over and over again.

“That’s why children are burning [Atlanta] to the ground — they don’t know what else to do. And it’s the responsibility of us to make this better, right now. We don’t want to see one officer charged, we want to see four officers prosecuted and sentenced. We don’t want to see Targets burning, we want to see the system that sets up systemic racism burnt to the ground.”

Run the Jewels have a penchant for fortuitous lyricism, but “walking in the snow” elevates them to a prophetic level, or it is just a testament to the vice-grip systemic racism holds on America and the apathy too many people feel toward it. 

“And everyday on evening news they feed you fear for free,” Killer Mike raps on the track. “And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / And 'til 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.”

What was intended as reference to the homicide of Eric Garner in police custody in 2014 can’t help but be applied to Floyd’s death and the country’s fallout, only adding to stark horror of the reality Black people have faced in America for the past six/fifty/hundreds of years.

El-P’s verse is aimed at the white people who contribute to this enduring system targeting people of color, believing themselves of higher value. “So when that cage is done with them and you're still poor, it come for you / The newest lowest on the totem, well golly gee, you have been used / You helped to fuel the death machine that down the line will kill you, too.”

RTJ point out the irony of Black people who “mastered” the system in the trap rager “JU$T,” who even in success still have “slave masters posin' on yo' dollar.” It’s no coincidence it’s the most star-studded track on “RTJ4,” featuring both Pharrell Williams and Zack de la Rocha who, regardless of their massive success, are still subjected to the same irony. de la Rocha brings his trademark rage to his feature, albeit with a disappointing level of restraint, threatening to “Tear all the flesh off the Earth / Stage set for a deafening reckoning” to even the playing field. 

That reckoning is realized in “holy calamafuck” with a beat-switch that launches a molotov cocktail on the track, taking it from Mike and El-P’s side street hustle to full-blown mayhem in a fire-razed warzone. The blaze rages into “goonies vs. E.T.” where war has led right to the end of times. RTJ envisions a planet exploited to ruin. “Fuck y'all got another planet on stash?” El-P yearns. “Far from the fact of the flames of our trash?” 

Killer Mike’s verse shows the planet being robbed from us right under our noses, distracted and manipulated by celebrity influencers and snuff-film broadcast news. “Ain't no revolution is televised and digitized,” he raps. “You’ve been hypnotized and Twitter-ized by silly guys / Cues to the evenin' news, make sure you ill-advised.”

The future they foresee sounds bleak, although it doesn’t have to be completely dark according to RTJ. “ooh la la” envisions a post-capitalist world, where revolution has entirely broken down societal structure. Killer Mike and El-P spit verses with tongue-in-cheek arrogance as the “People, we the pirates, the pride of this great republic” who now share the streets. The “Ooh, la la, ah, oui oui” hook is fun and catchy, played over off-key piano chords lends to the classic hip-hop feel of the song though its repetition errs on the side of irritating. 

The duo come out swinging harder on “yankee and the brave (ep. 4)” than previous RTJ intro tracks, with snare hits firing off like rounds from a .50-caliber machine. Framing the album as another episodic entry into the RTJ saga, the track has El-P and Mike take on new identities named after their respective hometown baseball teams. Run the Jewels are militant on the mic but are going to have a hell of a good time while doing it.

These identities turn RTJ into larger-than-life figures, towering stories high over “the ground below,” their rampage backed by a sampled guitar riff turned monstrous. Mike portrays himself somewhere between God and Godzilla, a man unwavering in his devotion to destructive convictions. 

El-P and Killer Mike have been relatively underground since the '90s, only finding mainstream success in the last decade when they came together for “R.A.P. Music” and RTJ’s debut. Run the Jewels have always been in it for the message — judgement from others be damned — a quintessential characteristic of their music. On their own projects, Killer Mike and El-P have torn down conservative poster-boy Ronald Reagan, criticized brainwashed patriotism and questioned the lawlessness of law enforcement. It was only natural for the two to hit it off. 

Together, they elevate each other. El-P’s production and sharp wit bring a certain finesse, laying the foundation for Killer Mike’s lyrics to break through like a sledgehammer. As Run the Jewels, their purpose has always been blunt. The duo told you to “Kill your masters” on “RTJ3” — they’re going to fight for a better future, even if it means burning the system to the ground while they’re at it.

This comes through on the chorus as Mike sings, “You say that you don't feel me now / I feel like like I'ma live somehow / Your love never meant much to me.” Still, after hitting their stride, the duo chose to release their albums for free download. “We just gave you inspiration for free / The money never meant much,” the two sing in the outro.

Closing track “a few words for the firing squad (radiation)” is only RTJ’s prelude to the revolution. The song has a unique sonic profile in RTJ’s discography, eschewing heavy percussion for mounting strings and soulful saxophone. The Yankee and the Brave saga wraps up with a narrative theme song ripped straight from the best of '70s serial TV shows, but not before sending out a rallying cry to listeners. 

Killer Mike’s wife confides that “Friends tell her ‘He could be another Malcolm, he could be another Martin,’” in reference to Mike’s outspoken politics. She fears for his life believing, like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., Render would become another martyr for the cause. 

El-P promises RTJ’s solidarity in the fight against the tyrannical system. “When they got you feelin' like a fox runnin' from another pack of dogs,” he promises. “Put the pistol and the fist up in the air, we are there, swear to God.” Despite his wife’s pleas, Killer Mike’s anger can’t be contained as he offers a final spit in the face to the firing squad on behalf of the “truth tellers tied to the whippin' post, left beaten, battered, bruised.” 

“Go hard, last words to the firing squad was, ‘Fuck you too.’”

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