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On the 3rd of June, 2 days before the scheduled release date for their heavily anticipated fourth album, Run the Jewels, the rap duo composed of rappers El-P and Killer Mike, posted a message to their social media that in light of current global situations they would be releasing the album early, hoping that it would bring enjoyment to their fans. Perhaps the defining contextual event at the time was the international protests against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder just over a week before, and while much of the album had presumably been recorded prior, it is striking how well the album matches much of the current cultural zeitgeist, fueled by a sense of anger and rebellion at contemporary society in the United States.
The album’s socially reflective themes appear from the first track ‘yankee and the brave (ep.4)’, as the duo touch on the subject of police brutality, with many lines reflecting the current tensions rising high in the country. Perhaps the most socially conscious track on the album is ‘walking in the snow’ where El-P touches upon how the system is designed to always oppress those as the bottom and the hypocrisy of certain pseudo-religious groups in the US, while Mike raps about flaws in the education system and the gradual apathy that has settled in towards many of the country’s flaws.
There is an often fun and chaotic friendship between the two MCs, which balances against some of the album’s heftier themes. From the opening track, ‘yankee and the brave (ep. 4)’, they refer to each other as brothers, and perform the final verse together, setting up the spirit of unity for the rest of the album. On track ‘out of sight’, the song starts with Mike and El-P trading quick verses building up to longer individual verses, while on one of El-P’s verses on ‘never look back’ Mike completes the rhyme at the end of his sentences.
The album features several guest artists, including 90s hip-hop stars Greg Nice and DJ Premier on ‘ooh la la’, which takes its title from its use of a sample of Greg Nice from the Gang Starr song ‘DWYCK’ which is then looped and used as the hook to hypnotic effect. On the track ‘JU$T’, both Pharell Williams and Rage Against the Machine frontman Zach de la Rocha feature, with Williams performing a catchy hook which humorously questions the reverence of slave-owners in American society (‘look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar’).
The production on the album, which is handled by El-P alongside various co-producers, continues the style set-up in the preceding Run the Jewels albums of noisy abrasive instrumental beats, which can be seen on tracks such as ‘the ground below’, which could pass for a hard rock song with its heavy guitar and drums. This abrasive style works well to reinforce the spirit of anarchism and revolution throughout the album, particularly in ‘ooh la la’ where the production incorporates chants from crowds and wailing sirens. Perhaps the highlight is closing track ‘a few words for the firing squad (radiation)’, where a series of escalating strings and guitars bursts into an extended abrasive saxophone performance.
On its own musical merit, RTJ4 would be a great album, full of abrasive beats and intricate wordplay and performance from two artists fully honed in their craft, but it is the album’s messages about the current times we live in that makes it truly essential.