Run the Jewels - RTJ4 (Cover Artwork)

Run the Jewels

RTJ4 (2020)

Jewel Runners

At some point in the future, either immediate or distant, I may be able to listen to RTJ4 outside the context of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, outside the past seven days of protesting police brutality against Black people that has reverberated out from their deaths into all 50 states of the union, outside of this moment of civic expression and unrest unlike anything in my lifetime and, unless you’re in your 60s, probably yours.

You might be able to right now, for all I know. You might want to put the prevailing politics aside and look at the art outside of the context of its creation and the moment into which it was released. Good for you, I suppose. You might want to point out that the record sticks to the formula that the rap group - Killer Mike and El-P, Michael Render and Jamie Meline - has more or less stuck to since their 2013 debut album became a success with indie-rock crowds across the festival-going world. Shoot, you could point out that RTJ4 even has the same thematic structure as the group’s other three albums (open with shit-talking, move into social ills, bounce back to shit-talking, close with heart), that only the textures have been swapped (the record’s production touchstones feel less Bomb Squad-meets-Blade Runner, more acid-jazz and NWA).

Those points are not wrong, but they miss the point. To you, straw man, be you legitimate or a creation of this write-up, I direct you to a tossed-off line buried deep within “yankee and the brave (ep.4)” and ask you how you can apply it to your own life, right now, when police officers are marching against citizens: “You try to fuck with my brother / you get the bastard surprise.” I would direct you to Killer Mike’s all-too-common story on “walking in the snow,” bouncing over the haunted, dying-klaxon beat with weary swagger: “And usually the lowest scores the poorest and they look like me / 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." It’s only prescient if you haven’t been paying attention.

Best, perhaps, to consider the record as not made for the moment, but ready for it. There is no mainstream act more primed for a moment of great awakening against systems of oppression. Run the Jewels has been making that notion it’s bread and butter since Obama’s second term. Had this record been released into an alternate timeline in which people of the country weren’t marching en mass against violent oppressive systems, RTJ4 would still be the most clear distillation of the group’s “kill all masters and talk the most shit possible” ethos to date. It’s serendipity that the record arrives now, the right pipe bomb for the right protest.

Fine, here’s a record review: It’s worth considering what RTJ4 tells us and re-tells us about the collaborators at its core. El-P, who takes care of the production work and about 40 percent of the rapping, maintains his perspective as a cynical, sneering conspiracy theorist, pointing his middle fingers indiscriminately at the world in front of him. He gets the funniest lines (I’m personally partial to “I’m not saying its a conspiracy but you’re all against me” from “the ground below) and the broader view (do your own research, but you get a good view of his take on the near future of the globe on “goonies vs E.T.) of the pair. Killer Mike remains your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper, sounding smoother and angrier than he has since at least Run the Jewels 2. His double-speed, PB-smooth flow on “pulling the pin” and, again, “goonies vs E.T.” is only outdone by his ability to make the tragedy of the Black america tangible through his vocal conviction and his eye for detail (“walking in the snow” is his most direct document, but he brings snippets of vivid pain throughout the album).

There’s a rap-nerd joy, even four albums in, in hearing someone as smooth as Killer Mike paired next to El-P’s overspoken angles; in hearing 2-Chainz, the crown prince of horny uncle rap, sliding in between the two on “out of sight,” sounding like a militant who’s ready to leave the front lines in the name of good sex; in hearing Zach De La Rocha, the spiritual predecessor to the group’s political style, scream “look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar.” There’s genuine ache in hearing Mavis Staples, one of the last living legends old enough to bear witness to when moments like ours arrived the first time out, lend her voice for the hook on “pulling the pin.” There’s something approaching admiration in the way the pair keeping finding strength in their own kinship “yankee and the brave (ep.4)” There’s something - either eerie, tragic, or overdue - about how cleanly the moment RTJ4 arrives in resonates with the world Run the Jewels has been trying to tell you you already live in.