The last time Run the Jewels dropped a new album, on Christmas Eve of 2016, it was during a charged moment of political upheaval and widespread protesting.
Fast-forward three and a half years to Wednesday’s surprise release of RTJ4 and here we are again, only exponentially worse. The more things change, the more they stay the same—but especially when Run the Jewels hits the studio.
“You know how everything can seem a little out of place?” El-P asks on the new album’s final cut. “All of my life that’s seemed to be the only normal state.”
Considering his hypothesis, El-P and his comrade Killer Mike have returned to find the state once again having an extremely normal one. Midway through 2020, the year is already the Stefon’s nightclub of hellscapes: it’s got everything. Utterly avoidable U.S. drone bombings in the Middle East. An erratic, malfunctioning primary process at home. A global pandemic, devastatingly mishandled in the U.S. All topped with the brightest burning flames of civil unrest since the 1960s, complete with a militarized police response seemingly written and directed by Paul Verhoeven.
In other words, right on schedule, Run the Jewels has forged from the embers of burning democracy some soulful new sounds to pregame on the way to the day’s demonstration. While RTJ4 sits sturdily alongside anything else in the duo’s discography, there could be no more relevant music for right now. This is 2020 in audio form, an incendiary album that sounds like it was written and recorded last weekend, but built to last long after whatever is about to happen happens.
The last time around, on the song “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost),” El-P sampled a quote from a 1967 Martin Luther King, Jr. speech: “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
Lest there be any confusion that this new album is that riot, El-P slips in a helpful, clarifying echo near the end of RTJ4: “This is for the never heard, never even get a mother—-in’ word.” He and Killer Mike are making music for the people who keep calling jammed phonelines about delayed stimulus checks, people who didn’t get a chance to vote for their candidate in the truncated Democratic primary, and of course, most pressingly, for people whose screams at the hands of brutalizing police keep getting ignored.
The most talked-about lyrics on the new album are bound to be the ones concerning that last group, expressed most explicitly on the song, “Walking in the Snow”:
And every day on evening news they feed you fear for free
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
This isn’t the first time Killer Mike has touched the third-rail of this topic. On 2014’s “Early,” he narrated in precise detail the thoughts of a black man in America being arrested in front of his family, knowing how close he is at every second to potentially becoming a hashtag. That song felt prescient because it came out just two months after unarmed teenager Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, the same way “Walking in the Snow” seemingly anticipates George Floyd’s murder.
But Killer Mike and El-P aren’t clairvoyant, they’re just observant.
Lyrics like these could come out at any time and feel of the moment, albeit less glaringly so than they do right now, when that first line also recalls how New York City is one of the world’s biggest COVID-19 hot zones. But delivering this album right when people at the bottom of the totem pole are rising up in an effort to topple it makes the songs hit even more powerfully.
Elsewhere, Run the Jewels fixates on the billionaire class exploiting labor, the seeming ubiquity of Jeffrey Epstein money behind the scenes, and the school-to-prison pipeline, all over Gang of Four samples and futuristic beats that knock harder than a battering ram. By the time Rage Against the Machine’s Zach de la Rocha shows up to scream “LOOK AT ALL THESE SLAVE MASTERS (posing on your dollar),” steam may be shooting out of listeners’ ears.
Although the pain and anger this album channels and responds to has a great many vectors, in the end it’s all about pushing back against the damage perpetrated upon black bodies. Killer Mike, who has been vocal on the topic recently, closes out the album on that note.
This is for the do-gooders that the no-gooders used and then abused
For the truth tellers tied to the whippin’ post, left beaten, battered, bruised
For the ones whose body hung from a tree like a piece of strange fruit
Go hard, last words to the firing squad was, “F— you too.”
Although their music is often peppered with levity, Run the Jewels ends its latest not with gallows humor but just gallows. They know that at this potential tipping point in history, the battle that Black Lives Matter protesters are engaged in won’t end well for many.
But they created the soundtrack for going down swinging.