‘RTJ4’ – A Timely Masterwork

Over the last weekend of May, a video of an activist going by the name of ‘Killer Mike’ was rapidly being shared across social media. He took to the podium at a press conference to advise the people of Atlanta — his beloved hometown — to protest peacefully in reaction to the murder of George Floyd and the systemic racism plaguing America.

“Don’t burn down your homes”, Killer Mike exclaimed. He painted an incredibly conflicted individual — one who fully understood the immediate unrest but also had the foresight to understand that a more tactical and communal long-term strategy will help change the community for the better. “Plot, Plan, Strategize, Organize, Mobilize,” was the motif, he repeated it many times and for an un-scripted speech that balanced heart and mind under the pressure of National TV cameras, it was nothing short of miraculous.

Cue the cretins who have been living under rocks for the last twenty years, poking their heads out to say, “Killer Mike is a bit of a violent name, isn’t it?”. His name is Michael Render, he’s been ‘killing the mic’ as one of Atlanta’s most outspoken and greatest MC’s since the turn of the century, when he was ushered in by rap behemoths Outkast. He’s now known as one half of hip-hop powerhouse duo, Run the Jewels.

As of January 2020, Run the Jewels were three records deep and close to dropping number four. With their fanbase nursing a three-year itch (‘RTJ3’ was a free Christmas present from the duo back in 2016), Killer Mike and Jaime ‘El-P’ Meline spent that time throwing themselves into the popular psyche. They produced standalone tracks for both FIFA 18 and Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. Their material was used in everything from adverts to the soundtracks of Academy Award winning Features Black Panther and The Big Short. Combined with being introduced by a then-buzzing Jeremy Corbyn before their first slot on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury 2017, it’s safe to say it’s been an expansive few years for RTJ.

Fast forward 6 months from the start of the year and we’re in a very different landscape – one that has been devastated by not only a global pandemic but also the most potent and active civil rights movement in over half a century. Both events have had a huge effect on the release of ‘RTJ4’, which was due to be available on Friday (05/06) but was surprise-released two days earlier.

So far, the reviews have been outstanding. The record was selected as ‘Best New Album’ at Pitchfork (an accolade they have received for every album to date) and taking full marks with multiple publications across the board. El-P has struck a new carat of gold with his production with beats that are so dynamic, outrageous and filthy that he seems to be operating on another level entirely to many of his contemporaries. [SEGUE] However, the main focus of the many articles and reviews written already concentrate on the lyrical content, particularly Killer Mike’s verse in ‘Walking in the Snow’.

If you haven’t heard it yet, then I recommend you do so, quickly. Its assessment of police brutality, keyboard warriors, the trap, black education and the dangers of speaking up could all be uncanny when looked through the lens of current events. In fact, it’s not uncanny at all – Killer Mike’s lyrics are a mirror rather than a prediction. His RTJ partner had to respond to a few tweets from fans this week who suggested that the lyrics to ‘Walking in the Snow’ were revisited just before release, to comment on the murder of George Floyd. In fact, RTJ recorded the track back in October, which shows how quickly racial injustices can be forgotten when in 2014, Eric Garner ‘whispered’ the very same words: “I can’t breathe.

At another point of the concise 39-minute runtime, Killer Mike phonically smashes into his ‘Ooh La La’ verse with “first of all, f*** the f***ing law, we is f***ing raw, steak tartar“; El-P spits on archaic, power-hungry political and financial systems in ‘Pulling the Pin’ with “These old foxes got a lot a lotta plots to out fox us, tryna divvy up and dump in corresponding boxes, how obnoxious’ and RTJ bring Pharrell Williams along for the getaway alongside long-term collaborator and unofficial third member of Run the Jewels, Zack De La Rocha, on ‘Ju$t’. “Look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar” occupies the main hook – another comment on America’s unapologetic ignorance to its history that serves only as a painful reminder of discrimination.

As you can tell by now, ‘RTJ4’ is peppered with poetically articulated and often stunning anti-establishment bravado; like a strongly-seasoned and experienced side dish to the #BLM main course. New ‘Jewel Runners’ shouldn’t be surprised to hear that this level of societal confrontation and accountability is not an aimless grab to comment on what is current. ‘Lie, Cheat, Steal’ and ‘Early’ from ‘RTJ2’ and ‘Don’t Get Captured’, ‘Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost) and ‘A Report to the Shareholders/Kill Your Masters’ from ‘RTJ3’ are all prime, politically-charged tracks from a well-informed and intelligent partnership. In short, Run the Jewels have always produced music by activists for activists, just like Zack and his band Rage Against the Machine did in the ’90s.

On a personal note, greatness collaborating with greatness and the ‘passing of the torch’ between these two bombastic Live acts warms my heart. RATM had to postpone their long-awaited comeback tour this year and RTJ were booked as their support act. Imagine how empowering these gigs would have been at a time like right now.

I digress but it’s important to stress that, despite the additional attention RTJ will now receive because of the timely arrival of ‘RTJ4’ and its lyrics, their music is just as well associated with crass humour, self-deprecation and dick jokes. Killer Mike & El-P will always be the first to say that they’re not a political group. Their major critics say that this approach dilutes the power of their message. Surely, they can’t be side-splittingly funny and enforce a strong moral compass at the same time? I guess they’re human after all.

Imagine telling Jordan Peele that his natural knack for comedy hinders the narratives, subtexts and characters of Us or Get Out?

Run the Jewels will undoubtedly be incredibly proud of the reception the record has received and their due increase in popularity, especially for two men who have been grinding in the music industry for the better part of two decades. Whether it’s sending a statement or having fun and ripping themselves, Run the Jewels will always do what they want, however they want.

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