Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Run The Jewels RTJ4

The first song on RTJ4 climaxes with a police standoff. “I got one round left, 100 cops outside,” Killer Mike raps. “I could shoot at them or put one between my eyes.” Over one of those controlled explosions El-P made his legend on, a beat that sounds like bombs going off underground and in the sky while anarchy breaks loose in between, Mike contemplates ending his own life rather than letting the police take him out. “I got the Grand Nat runnin’ in the alley outside,” El-P responds. “Yo, Michael, run like you hungry and get your ass in the ride.” With a dose of the action-comedy buddy-movie camaraderie that has always been key to the Run The Jewels dynamic, El works in a dig at his brother as the tension is peaking: “I’d rather have and not need you than watch your rotten demise/ And you still owe me for them Nikes, you do not get to just die.” Having considered his options, Mike concludes, “My brother made a point so out the back door I’ma slide/ I’m chubby, husky, thighs rubbing, fuckin’ up my Levi’s/ The crooked copper got the dropper, I put lead in his eye/ Plus we heard he murdered a black child so none of us cried.”

RTJ4 dropped Wednesday, two days early, into an America that feels like one of those chaotic El-P productions. But Run The Jewels released its thrilling opening track, “Yankee And The Brave,” in March, more than two months before Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed unarmed black man George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. They’ve been working on this album, their first in three and a half years after a flurry of three LPs in the same timeframe, since long before Floyd’s killing caused longstanding tensions to boil over once more. It’s not like they planned for “Walking In The Snow” (on which Mike raps about watching “the cops choke out a man like me”) and “JU$T” (on which El-P refers to New York City, “where murderous chokehold cops still earning a living”) to arrive in the immediate wake of another similar tragedy, at a moment when outrage over police killing black people with impunity was again manifesting in widespread public demonstrations. Given how broken this country is and how emphatically these guys react to that brokenness, it’s tough to imagine circumstances in which a new Run The Jewels album did not speak to its moment. Yet somehow they keep surfacing at times when the status quo seems so bleak that people take to the streets.

Run The Jewels 2, the sonic beatdown that topped year-end lists at publications including this one, was completed before police killed an unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson; by the time it dropped in October 2014, the Black Lives Matter movement had mobilized in response to even more deadly interactions between police and black Americans. Two years later, they released the bleary and expansive call to arms Run The Jewels 3 just after Donald Trump was elected president, when concerned citizens began flocking together and pledging to #resist. Now their album’s story has once again become intertwined with a public uprising. As a result, even a relatively playful song like “Yankee And The Brave” — which casts the two rappers in a fictional TV show about “a couple of small-time hustlers framed by crooked cops and forced to make a run for their lives” — ends up mentally linked with real-life stories and images, no matter how imperfectly congruent the content may be. Considering RTJ4 was initially teased for springtime release before coronavirus upended everyone’s plans, the timing feels like fate.

The TV show conceit bookends the album. “Yankee And The Brave” is out front, and then theme music for the imaginary series is tacked onto the end of the closing track, complete with drawling narration from indie rock guitar hero Matt Sweeney. It makes some kind of sense. Michael Render and Jaime Meline have always played outsized action heroes on RTJ records, adopting a dynamic something like the good guys in a tag-team wrestling match. They are larger-than-life vigilantes talking magnificent shit, boldly calling out injustice, skirting the edges of the law, calling for violent revolution. In a recent New York Times feature, Mike and Jaime respectively summed up their signature vibe as “having fun, and still punching and robbing every kid for their Starter jacket in the park” and “armed robbery with a moment of self-discovery.” All of this reflects their real-life values and perspectives, but as we saw last weekend — when Killer Mike, in a T-shirt reading “Kill Your Masters,” urged protesters in his native Atlanta not to burn down largely black-owned neighborhoods — the nuance of their views hasn’t always come across in the most blunt-force Run The Jewels tracks, which prioritize exhilarating catharsis. The songs that helped them blow up mostly blew them up to mythic proportions.

On the other hand, despite always delivering the requisite bravado, Run The Jewels albums have become more vulnerable endeavors over time. Their self-titled debut, released in 2013 hot on the heels of Mike’s El-produced career renaissance R.A.P. Music, crystallized the expectation of graphene-hard shit talk over table-flipping blitzkriegs. But work your way forward through their catalog and find Mike and El increasingly digging into their personal pain and the messy realities of American life, often over production that finds room for mood and texture within the music’s noise-bombed wreckage. RTJ2 nailed this balance, but in attempting to go both bigger and broader, RTJ3 suffered from the bloat that so often weighs down the third installment in a trilogy. With RTJ4, they’ve achieved the previous project’s desired grandeur by trimming down the excess and packing what remains with incredible density — of sound, of information, of feeling.

RTJ4 is a brisk and brutal listen, blazing through 11 songs in 39 minutes with nary a second to recuperate. It hits like classic Run The Jewels, yet it represents an evolution. Some of the growth reflects in a lyrical approach that tones down the juvenilia, maintaining the spirit of the playground taunt without so many references to genitalia. A lot of it has to do with the music itself, which more or less eradicates the difference between fiery throwdowns like “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” and smoldering reflections like “Down.” The initial pitch for RTJ was kindred rabble-rousers from separate hip-hop solar systems, one black and one white, happening upon genuine friendship and a stunning creative outpouring on the brink of middle age. In keeping with their genre’s grand tradition, the duo has always blurred the line between fantasy and reality in service of some greater emotional truth. Now they’ve closed the gap between the bangers and the meditations, too. The TV-show antics are a bit of a feint; Michael and Jaime sound more human than ever, and the soundtrack for that real talk has become as visceral as their signature broad-strokes bludgeoning.

As ever, the new album is a community effort. El-P crafted every beat with brothers Little Shalimar and Wilder Zoby, who’ve been contributing to Run The Jewels albums from the beginning. Longtime collaborators Boots and Dave Sitek also helped out on a few tracks, including the perfectly titled dancehall detonation “Holy Calamafuck.” Sitek isn’t credited on the epic drum-free closer “A Few Words For The Firing Squad (Radiation),” but the way it builds tension with flickering waves of noise, skronking saxophone, and sweeping strings calls back to his work with TV On The Radio. In one of several gestures connecting RTJ’s militarized industrial wasteland with the Golden Age rap these two were raised on, DJ Premier contributes cuts to “Ooh LA LA,” a joyous outburst built upon a sample from his old group Gang Starr’s iconic Nice & Smooth collab “DWYCK.” The guest list once again emphasizes the duo’s position at the intersection of many spheres: gregarious trap star 2 Chainz flexing over old-school drum breaks on “Out Of Sight,” Gangsta Boo’s hook sending a raw chill through “Walking In The Snow,” Pharrell Williams condemning entrenched power structures alongside Rage Against The Machine marauder Zack De La Rocha on “JU$T,” Queens Of The Stone Age maestro Josh Homme lending doom-metal gravitas to “Pulling The Pin” as Mavis Staples digs into a lifetime of black American struggle. This project continues to mine inspiration from the collision of worlds.

All those voices build out RTJ4 into a vivid extended universe, but Killer Mike and El-P are still very much leading men making the most of their spotlight. They consistently deliver lyrics that force you to stop what you’re doing and tune in, whether it’s Mike expressing support for sex workers unionizing on “The Ground Below” or Jaime counting his blessings after a drug-fueled trip through the multiverse on “Goonies Vs. ET.” It’s easy to take their rapping for granted after such sustained excellence, but they’re as sharp as ever here, one-upping each other at every opportunity, often giving voice to a vast collective anger. In particular, “Walking In The Snow” seems like it will peak with El succinctly disemboweling Evangelicals over their support for Donald Trump’s family separation policy: “Pseudo-Christians, y’all indifferent/ Kids in prisons ain’t a sin? Shit/ If even one scrap a what Jesus taught connected, you’d feel different/ What a disingenuous way to piss away existence, I don’t get it/ I’d say you lost your goddamn minds if y’all possessed one to begin with.” And then Mike swings in with a breathtaking barrage of deeply personal bars, ultimately tying a verse about systemic oppression back to El’s initial framework: “All of us serve the same masters, all of us nothin’ but slaves/ Never forget in the story of Jesus, the hero was killed by the state.”

It’s one spectacular sequence in an album full of them. Even when circling back through familiar themes and styles, RTJ4 sounds vital, current, yet again prophetic. Run The Jewels’ discordant rap music has perversely become comfort food of a sort; the thrill of this album is, in part, a thrill of recognition, of hearing old favorites back to doing what they do best. Yet RTJ4’s appeal extends beyond a pavlovian response to Mike and Jaime bashing away at the same old adrenalized pleasure centers. They’re also bombarding the fault lines of a dysfunctional society, translating millions of people’s desperation into rallying cries. Their music tends to feel timely because the issues they’re getting at are timeless. It tends to feel empowering because these guys are extremely fucking good at getting their listeners fired up. Dismiss it as grandstanding if you must, but there is great value in music that inputs despair and outputs determination.

Just look at “Ooh LA LA,” the album’s second song, released just days after “Yankee And The Brave.” On its face, it is the most backward-facing Run The Jewels song ever, reaching into hip-hop history to pay homage to their forebears. Yet in context, it’s also a path forward, proof that there’s still room for expansion within RTJ’s aesthetic. Their usual swaggering posture transplants to this more exultant environment without a snag. “When we usher in chaos, just know that we did it smiling,” Mike raps, gleefully. “Cannibals on this island, inmates run the asylum.” In the video, Mike, El, and their entourage throw a massive blowout on Wall Street, in which a buoyant line dance breaks out on the asphalt amidst the piles of burning money. Such euphoric scenes are rare in the world of Run The Jewels, but this one is perfectly in keeping with their ethos. Not only does it evoke the present turmoil, it dares to imagine a future in which people take to the streets not to protest but to celebrate.

RTJ4 is out now on BMG. Purchase it here or download for free with an optional donation to the National Lawyers Guild’s Mass Defense Fund.

Other albums of note out this week:

• Spacemen 3 co-founder Pete Kember’s first Sonic Boom album in 30 years, All Things Being Equal.
• Westerman’s elusive art-pop debut Your Hero Is Not Dead.
• Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever’s reliably catchy, impeccably crafted Sideways To New Italy.
• Hinds’ slightly delayed, polished-up pop move The Prettiest Curse.
• No Age’s direct, tuneful punk LP Goons Be Gone.
• Interpol frontman Paul Banks’ new supergroup Muzz’s stately self-titled debut.
• Mysterious masked singer RMR’s debut EP Drug Dealing Is A Lost Art.
• Red Hot Chili Peppers guitar wizard John Frusciante’s new Trickfinger IDM collection She Smiles Because She Presses The Button.
• Momma’s grungy purgatorial concept album Two Of Me.
• LA Priest’s idiosyncratically rhythmic GENE.
• GoGo Penguin’s rock-adjacent modern jazz self-titled.
• Dion’s old-school rockstar reunion party Blues With Friends.
• Counterparts frontman Brendan Murphy’s heavy-hardcore supergroup End’s Splinters From An Ever-Changing Face.
• Armand Hammer’s underground rap team-up Shrines.
• Nick Lowe’s Lay It On Me EP.
• Trash Talk’s Squalor EP.
• Flatbush Zombies’ now, more than ever EP.
• Colin Stetson’s Barkskins score.