For the majority of the 2010s, hip-hop was blessed with a supergroup deserving of the name in Run the Jewels. Composed of the legendary Killer Mike and El-P, the duo went about releasing, bar none, the most consistently great hip-hop of the decade, with three, increasingly amazing albums, rounding off with 2016’s almost perfect Run the Jewels 3.
Four years later and the world has been set on fire. With the Covid-19 epidemic and the incendiary Black Lives Matter protests captivating the public’s attention, now could not be a better time for the molotov that is an RTJ release. Almost mercifully, the duo released RTJ4 three days early, with the preceding singles being the injections of dopeness that you’d expect. By this point in the intro, I’d usually drop a bit of ambiguity as to whether this album is good or not, but you already know the answer to that, so let’s do this.
The album opens with lead single yankee and the brave (ep.4), and I can’t think of a better foot to lead on. As soon as that punishing opening beat and Mike’s “Back at it like a crack addict…” line drops, you know instantly that they haven’t lost it. From there, it’s textbook RTJ, with a monstrous boom-bap beat and the duo being on top, villainous form. Particularly loving El on this one with his “cra-a-ack/tha-a-at” line, hearkening back to the Biz Markies and ODBs in delivery. It’s a classic, hyped banger from the group, something that goes toe-to-toe with the best from their previous effort.
Following that is the next big single from RTJ4 in ooh la la, which features Greg Nice on the hook and DJ Premier on the decks. Immediately, as you’d expect with a feature list like that, the track reeks of that old-school, East Coast groove, with the RZA-esque piano sample creeping along yet another a phat beat. Both MCs are on top form yet again, with one of Mike’s more apolitical verses being particularly enjoyable (“I’m a dirty dog/Ha ha ha ha ha“). However, I’m really not keen on the hook, as just continues to hit my ear as grating, if nothing else.
That said, the stacked feature list on this thing is, for the most part, ridiculously solid. On the following track, Out of Sight, 2 Chainz matches a bevvy of golden Mike & El bars with a great verse of his own. As someone I personally associated with a style infamous for its minimal, repetitive bars on average, his spot here, while a notch brief, yields some great lines (“I’d buy a hot dog stand if I’m tryna be frank“).
The next few tracks, holy calamafuck, goonies vs. E.T. and walking in the snow, are all standard Run the Jewels fare, with Mike and El trading brilliant line after brilliant line — really making a case for each of them occupying a spot in the “best pen game of the century” list. Seriously, lines that’d usually warrant an entire paragraph of praise for another artist, they’re par for the course here. Moreover, you can tell that they’ve been active for over 20 years now, as the flows and delivery are *truly* the work of pros; varied, smooth and brutal, for the entire album.
As a producer, it’s also apparent that El-P has been doing this shit for a long time, for it be refined. The beats and keys are crisp and perfectly mixed, the instrumental space being just dense enough to feel full and banging. One thing I could say, however, is that, bar a few of the jazzier cuts on the back end, they are relatively samey — bassy, booming bouncers — but they slap so much that I could be madder about it.
Tracklist progressing, the revolutionary, pro-black politics become more apparent. Fittingly, the first track to directly address this is JU$T, featuring Pharrell Williams and frequent co-conspirator Zack de la Rocha. Opening on a very Pharrell-esque four-count (which is surprising considering he wasn’t on the production for this), the hook here is loaded and clever, linking the centuries-old link between capitalism and racism. And who better to address those issues than RATM’s very own Zack de la Rocha, dropping his hottest verse since the last Run the Jewels album. While he doesn’t have as many quotables as usual here, the flow here is fiery and exuberant, whetting the appetite for new Rage material like never before.
After the solid but unremarkable never look back, the last true roof-raiser comes at the behest of the Gang of Four-sampling the ground below. Andy Gill’s angular guitar leads act as a fitting tribute to the man in the most unexpected of places, as Mike and El flow mercilessly over the violent instrumental. I love the vocals on the hook, too, although I can’t seem to find who’s behind them. Regardless, there’s a rootsy soul to it, aided by the grainy vintage filter over it, that brings a welcome contrast to the post-punk riffage.
Now, from the opening sentence of that last paragraph, you might think that RTJ4 ends on a bit of a slump; nothing could be further from the truth. The final two tracks, pulling the pin and a few words for the firing squad (radiation), are the *rare* RTJ slow cuts, but both are unwaveringly compelling.
pulling the pin, featuring Mavis Staples and Josh Homme (Josh Homme on an RTJ track? Excuse me while I just mess my knickers over thAt), also features one of El’s most cohesive, hard-hitting and revealing verses. While I did describe these as slower cuts, there is still a beating pulse to the instrumental, where Homme contributes some ghostly backing vocals and sporadic guitar breaks. I would’ve, admittedly, liked to have seen some kind of lead vocal from my Joshy, but I wouldn’t expect Ginger Elvis to drop a dope rhyme out of nowhere. That said, the guest vocal from Mavis Staples here is, in a word (or two), chillingly beautiful. Her conviction is potent, while the words she sings are eerily timely — it makes for tearingly bold music.
Especially considering his impassioned, moving speech in Atlanta recently, Killer Mike’s presence, even on the less-political moments, is drawing and important throughout RTJ4. At his best, however, he’s the 2020 equivalent to a Chuck D or a Zack de la Rocha, with an eloquence that, while always present in his earlier work, feels urgent and needed today.
This eloquence is no more poignant than on the closing track, a few words for the firing squad (radiation). However, opening the track is El-P, with an equally powerful verse, revealing even more past his rugged exterior than the last track. That said, it truly is Mike’s verse that stands as a career-best, especially with Cochemea Gastelum’s tenor sax screaming in the background. As far as album closers go, it’s nigh-on perfect. I say “nigh-on” because following that, befuddlingly, is a “Yankee & the Brave” TV commercial skit — why this didn’t open the album, letting it close on such a powerful moment, I will never know.
Overall, RTJ4 is, predictably, an absolute triumph. Managing to be both ragingly current, yet totally timeless, the album sees both El-P and Killer Mike on the best form of their careers, settling in as a veterans and delivering some of their best work. Their chemistry is the stuff that most tag teams dream of, as well as with the bounty of dynamite guest spots. While it may be lighter on the bangers than their previous effort, the trade-off is some surprisingly affecting material on the back-end of this thing, making it possibly their most rounded project yet.
best tracks: yankee and the brave (ep. 4), pulling the pin, a few words for the firing squad (radiation), the ground below, out of sight