Just in time for the biggest protests in the US since 1968, the hip-hop duo Run the Jewels have given us the soundtrack for running to the barricades. As with their last album, “RTJ3,” which came out only a few weeks before Trump’s inauguration, the entirety of “RTJ4” could have been written after the protests following George Floyd’s murder. (Vulture ran an article titled “7 Prescient Lyrics From Run the Jewels’ ‘RTJ4.’”)
The opening song on “RTJ4,” Yankee and the Braze,” continues their “revolutionary but gangsta” stance, with Killer Mike contemplating a shootout with cops and El-P rapping, “All of us targeted, all we doin’ is arguin’… I’m ready to mob on these fuckin’ charlatans.” (To spoil the narrative, it ends with one dead cop.)
More than ever, Run the Jewels balance that kind of politically charged boasting, with vulnerability and a desire to reveal the people behind the personae. The narrative of “Yankee and the Brave” is framed as a TV episode, with a voice-over by rock musician Matt Sweeney, and the album returns to this concept in its final moments.
This album’s best songs — “Walking in the Snow,” “Pulling the Pin,” “ A Few Words for the Firing Squad (Radiation)” — mount blistering assaults on white supremacy, the media, America’s educational system, slacktivism, and the hypocrisy of Trump’s evangelical supporters while crying out about the toll of living in such an oppressive world.
Run the Jewels have done something unprecedented in hip-hop history: finding success in middle age after El-P and Killer Mike spent years playing to small audiences as solo artists and with other groups. Outkast introduced Killer Mike on “Snappin’ and Trappin’ “ and their Grammy-winning “The Whole World,” but his debut solo album was disappointing.
Killer Mike’s increasingly political direction got ignored till “R.A.P. Music,” entirely produced by El-P. That rapper/ producer helped kickstart the notion of underground hip-hop in the ‘90s with the group Company Flow and his indie label Definitive Jux. But at the time Run the Jewels formed, Definitive Jux had gone out of business and El-P was feeling desperate. The group’s ethos returns to late ‘80s and early ‘90s hip-hop, when hardcore rap still had a political conscience.
“Holy Calamafuck” flips a dancehall reggae sample into a beat like hearing tanks storm through Brooklyn. While El-P’s capable of making slow, spare beats, as on “Ju$t,” he’s always been inclined toward noisy soundscapes that suggest analog synthesizers hooked up to overloaded distortion pedals. Signing to a major label got them a larger budget for sampling, but their sound hasn’t changed. The group sticks to a dynamic where Killer Mike takes the lead as their spokesperson, both brasher and more inclined toward political activism.
“A Few Words For The Firing Squad (Radiation)” ends the album by getting even more introspective, with Killer Mike recalling the pain of his mother’s death and the self-destructive behavior it led to. The song’s structure is long and jazzy, with a two-minute instrumental coda featuring saxophone and strings.
Run the Jewels released “Yankee and the Brave” and “Ooh La La” simultaneously as the first two singles from “RTJ4.” The latter received a more positive response. Based on a sample from Gang Starr and Nice & Smooth, it’s filled with joyful shit-talking and references to ‘90s hip-hop. The music video flips around the violence and despair of “Yankee and the Brave.” Set on a downtown city block, it imagines a post-capitalist utopia where money burns on a bonfire, inmates dance freely in the street, and champagne flows. Right now, it takes on a deeper meaning: the collective celebration it depicts was impossible to take place due to COVID lockdown, and only the urgency of protest has made people willing to risk getting together at this time.
Run the Jewels’ music has often been described as dystopian. “Stepfather Factory,” the most striking song on El-P’s debut solo album, imagined a sci-fi world of abusive, alcoholic robot parents. Given the futuristic feel of his production, it’s fitting that he was in consideration to compose the score of “Blade Runner 2049.” But as individuals and a group, he and Killer Mike have always been talking about the world in front of us. It couldn’t be more glaringly obvious than on “RTJ4,” a truer picture of American life than you’ll get from cable news. Run the Jewels are great at bragging about what tough guys they are, but they also show how such posing works as a hedge against pain.
“RTJ4” isn’t being released into a vacuum. The past two weeks’ protests have led to a resurgence in hip-hop protest songs, recorded quickly in response, with YG’s “FTP” and Terrace Martin, Denzel Curry, Kamasi Washington, G Perico, and Daylyt’s “Pig Feet” being the best. They join recent songs recorded slightly earlier addressing the systemic problems with American police: Polo G’s “Wishing For a Hero,” City Morgue’s “ACAB,” and Freddie Gibbs, The Alchemist & Rick Ross’ “Scottie Beam.”
We’ve also seen several excellent underground hip-hop albums. Ka’s “Descendants of Cain” looks back on his youth in crack-ridden Brooklyn from a literary perspective with the book of Genesis as a filter. Trans rapper Backxwash’s “God Had Nothing To Do With It So Leave Him Out Of It,” tells her personal path toward self-acceptance using occult imagery and samples from Black Sabbath, Patti Smith, and Led Zeppelin. Armand Hammer’s “Sirens” comes close to being musique concrète with a beat.
At worst, becoming the most popular genre of music in the US led mainstream hip-hop to the materialistic bloat of ‘70s rock music just before punk. But its underground remains diverse and burgeoning, and one hopes the present circumstances will lead more popular artists to branch out toward politics. The urgency of “RTJ4” defies stereotypes about corny “conscious rap” that really challenges nothing.
RUN THE JEWELS | “RTJ4” | BMG | runthejewels.com/
To sign up for the Gay City News email newsletter, visit gaycitynews.com/newsletter.