Review Summary: Power, Corruption and Lies
Something feels wrong. Maybe it's the Alaskan Thunderfu
ck I laced this batch of cookies with, maybe it's the eighth of 'shrooms I put on my New York slice thirty minutes ago, or maybe it's an adrenaline rush elicited from the Molly I recently inserted to a three-knuckle depth inside my rectum. I've been in my doomsday bunker for three months now, but I haven't felt safe for a single second. The Kalashnikov in my hands seems useless against the surging waves of fascism breaking all over the world. The ski mask I'm wearing is starting to itch, and my anonymity seems trifling seeing as Facebook has sold all of my data to the highest bidder. I'm doubly terrified because I only learned of the GPS microchips present in vaccinations after my pre-lockdown Diphtheria shot. My stash of Molotov Cocktails seems redundant given that the world's already on fire. Smoking blunts in abundance to push through the paranoia has only cemented my view that the technology that enabled us to rise above nature is tainted. Always was. A breach of privacy here, a genocide there, a million ways to control a populace, and no shortage of willing hands to hover over the buttons that control our collective fate – and Mercury's in retrograde to boot.
El-P has been telegraphing these views through his music for a long time. The world is fu
cked, and those that hold the power to change things have historically abused it. Jaime Meline's weapon of choice in the fight against Them is a fundamental distrust. Manifested in his music, this weapon is a double-edged sword. Wielded well, this probing cynicism can result in cutting, Chomsky-like prescience. When poorly handled, images of tinfoil hat-sporting trailer-dwellers swim to mind. This dynamic played out in miniature at the center of I'll Sleep When You're Dead
, where “Dear Sirs” saw El-P at his most potent, spitting vitriol at deserving targets, not a single shot missing its mark. “Run The Numbers”'s back end followed this slam dunk with an unusually poetic half-court airball regarding 9/11 conspiracy theories. Even if the shot doesn't land, El-P misses in style, and this is part of why he is so dearly looked upon by many. He is willing to creatively challenge narratives, making us reflect on where we direct our trust.
Killer Mike is an odd pairing for El-P. His distrust of authority comes from a place of experience rather than paranoia. He publicly and explicitly states his beliefs, a full-blown political activist, using his voice to teach circumstance and instigate change. His personal life is not hidden behind elaborate metaphors and diversions. “Untitled” from R.A.P Music
shows where his heart resides – beyond being on his sleeve, it's in the palm of his hand and being held out in offering. Yet, after espousing his concerns on what his wife will do after he dies, the link between the two rappers emerges: “I don't trust the Church or the government / Democrat, Republican / Pope, or a Bishop, or them other men.
Protracted, difficult, and different as their respective pasts are, RTJ4
marks the fifth great album Jaime and Mike have created together since 2012, each successive release seeming to align and react with one more ominous tick of the doomsday clock. Here we and they stand, grasping hands, challenging ourselves to peer over the ledge into depths unknown, with drugs and drums and in tow for when it all gets too much.
Now I'm not one to cry apocalypse at the drop of an orange wig – I've watched enough Legends of the Galactic Heroes
to understand relativity as it relates to history (who needs a real education in 2020?) – but it feels to me like the iron is fu
cking hot for the striking right now. Here's the obvious part: RTJ4
's timing is eerie. The Black Lives Matter protests and the resulting shi
tshow that's still unfolding in America mark a very important moment in history. It's easy to view RTJ4
as a prescient album, especially considering some coincidences that lie within its lyrics, but this undermines an important part of El-P and Killer Mike's narrative – they've been saying this shi
t for years. “Thieves! (Screamed The Ghost)”, “2100”, “Close Your Eyes (And Count To fu
ck)” carry just as much weight in current circumstances as the already infamous “I can't breathe
” lyric from “walking in the snow”. Run The Jewels have represented righteous causes since day one (more explicitly since Run The Jewels 2
), but in the current social climate their words seem to ring twice as loudly; the fury of their diatribes is tangibly caustic. If they really are the comical vagabonds that they like to paint themselves as, they're more jaded good guys than they are outright villains.
This good guy image plays into the common shi
t-hot take that Run The Jewels are 'white-people hip-hop' for shameless virtue-signallers that want to play anarchist for a minute. Their music, after all, is surgically clean and bangin' enough to have landed them spots in twelve video game soundtracks. True enough, if you want unfiltered street personalities that aren't neutered by a veneer of industry professionalism, then these two are no longer for you. This criticism, however, does fail to account for the lived experiences of these veterans, humbled by years of semi-successful purgatory while they grafted, creating the very music you're lusting after.
's content shouldn't surprise anyone. Emotional numbers play off against braggadocious bangers, anarchist anthems are offset by veritable vibefests, and sometimes you get a taste of all of the above on a single track. Balanced as this approach is, after four full-length releases it's getting a little tired. There is a sense of complacency that comes in tandem with their refusal to switch up the formula or dial in on something specific for long enough to really develop it. This is a deep-set nit in RTJ's putrid, matted body-hair, and given the stature of these artists it seems fair to hope for something a little different. That being said, it's difficult to justify the case for less 'fun' to build cohesion and consistency, because if the alternative is eleven whole tracks about how watching the news makes you one of the sheeple, things would quickly become more heavy-handed than they already are. Having said that, the best verses always seem to arise from heavy topics, and 35-minutes worth of dick-jokes would also be a tiresome approach. Truth is, they've already sensibly made this compromise; it's just that the results mar their chances of ever releasing a transcendent, breakthrough album.
A fresh approach may have separated RTJ4
from its predecessors, but the ease with which Run The Jewels continue to make excellent songs makes it hard to be disappointed whenever you drink their Kool-Aid. Across each release, they've remained as consistent as a gluten-free bowel movement, and this remains true here. Each song contains at least a handful of lines – if not a full verse – from one artist or the other that will appeal to some sensibility of any respective listener. Lyrical references cover a spectrum ranging from Horrible Histories-like renditions of current events to stupid memes and excessive fine-dining (we can tell, guys).
The production relies as heavily on 808s and brash, snappy percussion as usual, and El-P and his scarcely mentioned co-producers Little Shalimar and Wilder Zoby are better at this than most. RTJ4
also contains the most predominant micro-focus of any Run The Jewels production yet, with certain verses (such as Mike's last verse on “holy calamafu
ck” and his first in “walking in the snow”) receiving special treatment, complimenting the strongest messages on the album with well-placed wonky synths, wailing background vocals, and other established Meline-isms. Sometimes this dynamic approach to production takes away from the song as a holistic whole, as the production is pulled in so many different directions throughout a song that an overall vibe fails to settle. Like a few other El-Producto LPs, there are also some weak hooks here, and I don't imagine it's a coincidence that the strongest of the album (and perhaps the year) on “JU$T” happens to have Pharrell Williams' name next to it.
This progression in production coupled with the variety of flows and rhyme schemes utilised on RTJ4
are two factors that likely catalysed Jaime and Mike's belief that this is their best release yet. On each of their previous releases, a handful of spins were all that was needed to rap along with the dynamic duo, but RTJ4
is just that little bit more intricate and difficult to penetrate in its verbal acrobatics.
When you put two distinct personalities side-by-side for this long, there is bound to be personal growth, and it has been a pleasure to witness that of RTJ. Not only does Jaime Meline vote now, he also has thrown away the technicolour dreamcoat that he used to drape over autobiographical moments in his music. Direct as “Stepfather Factory” or “For My Upstairs Neighbour” are once you've pulled them apart, they can't quite prepare you for the bare-faced honesty of RTJ4
's El-P: “This is for my sister Sarah, honey, I'm so sorry you got hurt / This is for the dawn Mama took a knock, had to change the locks.
These lines hit in the deeply confessional closing track of the album, “a few words for the firing squad (radiation)”, in which Killer Mike also miraculously manages to one-up his own trademark brutal honesty. Right after discussing the recent death of his mother, Mike goes on to describe a conversation with his wife, once again on the topic of his imminent demise: “Friends tell her, 'he could be another Malcolm, he could be another Martin / She told her partner, 'I need a husband more than the world need another martyr.'
” Played against the Killer Mike of “untitled”, we can see how his fame and influence has affected his familial dialogues.
is neither groundbreaking nor a massive leap forward for the duo, but when they're this good at what they do every inch feels like a mile. El sums it up best on “holy calamafu
ck”: “It's been twenty plus years, you think that's a clue? / Maybe this guy kinda kill what he do / He's probably that dude / He's left enough proof
”. The difference is that twenty years ago his and Killer Mike's audience were a slither of what they are now. Run The Jewels is now a global phenomenon, and the soundtrack to some seriously uncertain times. Importantly, even in my isolated, inebriated, paranoid, vulnerable state, this album provides a cathartic and exhilarating escape from the overbearing madness of a strange fu