What to say about Run The Jewels… what to say about vigilante justice? For that is exactly what rappers El-P and Killer Mike are — lyrical vigilantes. Exposing the world for what it is one track at a time, this renegade hip hop duo bluntly states what’s been on everyone’s mind this past year and do so with much-needed nostalgia, bringing back some 90s-style rap beats between messages of outrage in RTJ4. And, when we say it’s ‘blunt’ in demeanor, that’s admittedly an understatement. If cops are beating people in the streets, it’s no time to beat around the bush.
Welcome to the fourth installment of Run The Jewels — just in the nick of time!
RTJ unleashed their self-titled debut LP back in 2013 as a free digital download through their website; in 2014, they did it again with RTJ2. RTJ3 took the world by storm in 2016, cementing the duo’s rap royalty status in one of the most turbulent of American election years. Fast forward to present day: the whole world has been shaken sideways and RTJ gallantly returns with full-length #4, an 11-track studio album off their own Jewel Runners imprint via RBC Records and BMG Rights Management. The LP was released two days ahead of schedule, as a result of the explosive BLM movement and the consequential pushback of global armed forces. Preceding the album were two singles in March — at the height of the COVID lockdown — released three days apart entitled “yankee and the brave (ep. 4)” and “ooh la la”, with a video for the latter unveiled in late April. Both tracks not only display the central theme of the full-length, yet paint an early picture of what was to come following the harrowing death of George Floyd. This fight is far from over, so let RTJ lead the way.
Run The Jewels comments on the album date change:
Bullshit infestation be damned, indeed. The album’s lead single, “yankee and the brave (ep. 4)”, encompasses the litany of bullshit embedding today’s society, especially in America. Preluding via TV programming, the album’s introduction sucks you into RTJ’s mentality — “we’re back at it like a crack addict”! A commanding backbeat paves the way for RTJ to unload their latest aggressions, all in that sweet, OG hip hop style. No one escapes the wrath and fury of RTJ, whether that be crooked cops, inept politicians or famous figureheads standing idle while the 99% suffers, evident in lines like “Imma terrorize actors like they want some drama” and labeling those in charge a bunch of “charlatans”. RTJ is back to “command the peace”, for “all this disrespect” has to end.
Track two is the second single made public ahead of time, “ooh la la” featuring Greg Nice and DJ Premier. An overt stab at the self-proclaimed bourgeois of this country, “ooh la la” reflects the fact that ‘sophisticated’ comes in all kinds of packagings — not just white and privileged. It’s time to break societal moulds labeling black citizens lesser just from being born. Melodic keys welcome the listener, remixed in a classic hip hop style, with echoes of “hey hey” layering the background; this track is all-around polished like a silver spoon. Lyrics like “look alive”, “fuck the fuckin’ law” and “I’m a dirty dog” followed by an evil laugh emphasizes RTJ’s notion to live outside the confines of a clearly broken system. Plus, the “ooh la la” is reminiscent of the freedom-fighting Fugees of yesteryear. “out of sight”, featuring 2 Chainz, grab’s the listener’s attention right out the bat with a bass-scratching intro. “Run, here come the menaces,” warns RTJ, as they seamlessly flow into yet another running commentary on how no one stands a chance in a land governed by systemic racism.
“We’re the product of fucking poverty!” Exclaims 2 Chainz in the final verse.
Track four, “holy calamafuck”, twists halfway through to an entirely new composition. The tempo is pulled back and the tone plummets to a serious timbre after a couple beats of total distortion. The metamorphosis is underway… enjoy the unreality while you can. The instrumentals in the subsequent track, “goonies vs. E.T.”, sound like a swarm of bees descending on the ears — the reckoning is upon us. “Fuck y’all got, another planet on stash?” Asks RTJ. There is much to be said about the constant polluting of this planet, visible in the few months during this quarantine time when they earth started naturally repairing itself. Hopefully, we will learn from what we witnessed while sitting in our homes, how our day-to-day routine is more damaging than we’ve ever imagined. “walking in the snow” proffers a more somber tune, slower and heavier to digest. For, this one’s hard to swallow: people “getting spit on” for their beliefs, people drinking the “Kool-Aid” of intolerance, hiding behind Christ (or insert other higher power here) in order to regard themselves holier than thou. If there was ever a song on how prejudice feels, this would be it.
By the time you hit “JU$T”, you think, “OK, Pharrell Williams is on it. This guy specializes in uplifting dance tracks. This one’s got to break the tension a little.” NOPE. Pharrell, paired with Rage Against the Machine frontman Zack de la Rocha, shoves bigotry so far down your throat, you choke. To get ahead in life, you gotta team with the leaches (AKA, those who claim mastery over certain skill sets that you can’t work — or live — without, yet suck you dry financially). “Look at all these slave masters, posin’ on your dollar”… in other words, certain entitled industries we’ve grown accustomed to are complete and utter scams. One conspicuously applicable example in the song is RTJ stating how “murderous chokehold cops” are “still earning a living”. Police the police! De la Rocha delivers a forceful plea at the end, illuminating the “deafening reckoning” that awaits us if we don’t take the blindfold off in time. Track eight, “never look back”, is the synthy call to said action. It’s time to GO. “the ground below” has a harder guitar and spotlights “I’m not a holy man”, yet my morality is unquestionable.
You don’t have to hide behind a deity to make the world better.
The final tracks, “pulling the pin” (which literally chants the word “grenade”) and “a few words for the firing squad (radiation)”, complete the concept album full-circle. The former brings old-school rhythm and blues chanteuse Mavis Staples into the mix (of The Staple Singers) alongside Josh Homme (of Queens of the Stone Age, Eagles of Death Metal, etc.). It’s a gospel meets psychedelia whirlwind meant to disorient the listener, for the puppeteers in charge have been pulling everyone’s strings, tangling all of us up after “years of self-lobotomy”. Why? RTJ explains, “you can’t travel towards the light if they’re in charge of your departure”, meaning your flight to righteousness will always be delayed, your bags always searched, your connecting flight always canceled and you, quite possibly, may be rendered on the ‘no fly list’ altogether if you push the issue. In other words, congress is the current TSA, the president’s the pilot and there’s no way in hell you’re boarding the status quo plane if you’re smuggling free speech and opposing agendas on board. So sad…
Last, the concluding track “a few words for the firing squad (radiation)” is far more complex than it sounds. Its escalating tone and timbre instill hope for a better tomorrow, as lyrics like “my only grace” is love and “being smart ain’t what it used to be” help guide the listener to stay on the tried and true path. The backing instrumentals remind you of 80s INXS hit “Never Tear Us Apart”… memories of an easier decade flood you, yet the message remains the same. Don’t let ‘the man’ make the rules. If the ‘firing squad’ is inevitable, at least take pleasure in humanity before they pull the trigger. It’s okay to be a man over a “martyr”, for vigilantism hurts those around you as you march for change. Thus, repent to your loved ones before the firing squad knocks on their door as a result of your activism. The concept of repentance in this song is ironic, considering the repeated dismissal of religious fervor in previous songs. Bottom line, you can be devout without being depraved. Like “goonies vs. E.T.”, this elaborate album swan song pivots halfway through to cello and violins — the transformation is complete. A saxophone enters afterward like gunfire — the battle has come to fruition. It is now our turn to take RTJ teachings in stride as we defend the truth on the front lines. A final cutaway occurs 4/5 through this six-minute 42-second narrative, allowing an orator to deliver RTJ4‘s denouement: “this is the story of a couple small-time hustlers, framed by crooked cops and forced to make a run for their lives.” Will they beat the odds? Will they defeat the evil around the corner? A sample of the opening track “yankee and the brave (ep. 4)” echoes as the album comes to an end, rendering the journey right back where it started. Now, listen again and really listen this time.
RTJ4, like its predecessors, is available for free through the band’s website. Of course, stream away on all the usual platforms below. If you would like a special pressed edition of the album, physical copies are slated to go on sale this September. Stay safe in fighting the good fight and visit the links below for more information.
Purchase or stream ‘RTJ4’ album:
- Apple Music
- RTJ site (all download donations go to Mass Defence Program)
- Physical copy pre-order
- yankee and the brave (ep. 4)
- ooh la la, feat. Greg Nice & DJ Premier
- out of sight, feat. 2 Chainz
- holy calamafuck
- goonies vs. E.T.
- walking in the snow
- JU$T, feat. Pharrell Williams & Zack de la Rocha
- never look back
- the ground below
- pulling the pin, feat. Mavis Staples & Josh Homme
- a few words for the firing squad (radiation)
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Disclaimer: All views presented in this album review are those of the reviewer and not necessarily those of Top Shelf Music.