Run the Jewels’ ‘RTJ4’ Taps Into Collective Insurgence With Fists of Fury

Hip-hop history is full of dynamic duos, and Run the Jewels join the ranks as Yankee and the Brave. The opener to their latest album, “RTJ4,” features a vintage radio announcer drawing from the names of the New York Yankees and the Atlanta Braves. New York is the birthplace of hip-hop, and Atlanta has long been an epicenter, so El-P and Killer Mike, hailing from those two respective cities, have the game covered. El-P epitomized underground hip-hop in the ‘90s with his group Company Flow, while Killer Mike rose to fame on Outkast’s “Stankonia.” Since their 2013 self-titled debut, Run the Jewels have been a breath of fresh air in hip-hop, nodding to bygone eras in substance and spirit, while keeping their music relevant and edgy. There has always been a revolutionary spirit to the collaboration, as Company Flow’s first album, 1997’s “Funcrusher Plus,” came with an inscription reading, “Independent as Fuck,” and Killer Mike has been a consistent voice of progress in sociopolitical and black American issues. With the country breaking into civil unrest, following the murder of unarmed black man George Floyd by a contemptible white police officer, RTJ’s latest album comes at an opportune time. The duo pushed the release forward a couple days, reasoning, “Fuck it, why wait. The world is infested with bullshit so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all.”

Each emcee locks and loads over the skewered boom bap opener. El-P calls out powers that be, declaring, “I’m ready to mob on these fuckin’ charlatans.” Killer Mike drops a verse inspired by the story of Christopher Dorner, who took his own life, rather than let an officer take it. Unjust cops and crime are standard rap storytelling fare, but the current circumstances remind us why, and the lyrics come charged. Fans of hip-hop’s golden age will be delighted by lead single “Ooh La La,” which samples Gang Starr’s DJ Premier-produced 1994 track “DWYCK.” From the piano loop and scratching to the old school couplets and singsong chorus, it’s a blast from the past. El-P raps with a laidback swagger, and Mike fills his verse with playful interjections, but beneath the easy flow lurks the usual revolutionary zeal. Lines like “Got the semi in the hemi” come in the context of an op-ed Killer Mike wrote last week for news site Colorlines, supporting black gun ownership,. This was followed by another article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC), in which he went further, building on his experience as a community organizer, reflecting on everyone from Frederick Douglas to Rodney King, and offering guidelines for the black community to “plot, plan, strategize, mobilize.” El-P balances bragaddocio with an occasional Nietzschean insert, and Mike expresses a tinge of sympathy for the Joker, which again, rings in tune with the zeitgeist. 

“Out of Sight” erupts like ‘80s dance video fare, an atypically upbeat sound with a glitchy loop. Featured guest 2 Chainz packs plenty of personality into a short verse, and the three rappers trade in acrobatics about everything from Scarface and Tony Hawk to Wu-tang in a light diversion. “Holy Calamafuck” brings a reggae vocal sample, deconstructed fuck, and a DJ-spawned sound recalling Beastie Boys’ “Intergalactic.” A midsong exclamation cues a gritty, growling synth bass, and the beat switches to music for Armageddon’s aftermath. It’s a classic El-P beat crinkled, creased, skewed, and sandblasted, Verbose outpourings of cryptic slang and bona fide boasting about making one’s way up give way to “Clockwork Orange” allusions and renegade instructions like “Aim for the drones in your zoning district.” A title like “Goonies vs. ET” sounds in place on a RTJ album, and El-P raps with indefatigable verve alongside a pitched-down vocal and fluttering sax, in a rowdy B-boy riot. Vaguely comic book-informed descriptions of dystopia allude to LARP games and recaset Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” in the Twitterverse.

Referee whistles sound off to a frenetic splattering of handclaps and a kludgy bassline in the wonky, off-kilter “Walking in the Snow.” There’s a whimsy in both the production and lyrical flourishes that reminds the listener how much Killer Mike and El-P love hip-hop. Meanwhile, Three Six Mafia’s Gangsta Boo lends her most ratchet of voices, imparting attitude and edge. The rappers denounce the public’s lack of empathy, and the most chilling line of the album comes when Mike quotes the final words of both Eric Garner and George Floyd, noting “You watch the cops choke out a man like me / And ’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe.’” In another line, he reminds us, “I popped up in Wikileaks,” in reference to his mention in Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails. Mike was politically vocal long before the riots, and one can tell from the company he keeps. “Just” recruits Zach de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine. The perennially cool Pharell Williams joins for a unique juxtaposition, bragging nonchalantly before de la Rocha barges in, “Look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar.” It’s a massive red pill served up to rappers who incessantly flaunt their wealth. The Benjamins they slave after mock them with their celebrated heritage. 

A hip-hop record seems incomplete without a rags to riches story, and RTJ offer street wisdom, culminating in a telling cash register sound, in “Never Look Back.” While most rappers would stop here, however, gloating and satiated, they extract some deeper meaning. “The Ground Below” samples a power riff from Gang of Four’s “Ether” and El-P half-sings, “Love never mean much to me,” as Mike fleshes the sentiment out into aphorisms, before reprising the theme of “Just.” Aquatic ripples and labyrinthine Eastern-tinged melodies meet tortured, soulful ambient vocals on the Mavis Staples and Josh Homme-featured “Pulling the Pin.” Staples’ authentic blues spirit shines in the fraught environment. Mike comes through raging, over jarring guitars and brass, decrying corruption and perversion in the upper echelon, and rapping about makers and takers, as Staples bemoans, “There’s a grenade in my heart.” The drums drop out, strings enter, and horns let loose on “A Few Words for the Firing Squad (Radiation).” Mike gets personal, recounting his late mother and his family life. El-P reflects on the aforementioned sordid realities, concluding, “It really kinda takes the sheen off people getting rich.”

There’s a last laugh, a rebound from the somber spirit, in a final snippet that brings back the original announcer, describing the rappers as “framed by crooked cops and forced to make a run for their lives.” The final frame defines Killer Mike and El-P in terms of their opposition to law enforcement, returning to the pressing narrative. Yet, it’s clear who wins from the lighthearted manner of the duo’s concluding appearance. Having untangled and exposed the system, shedding words of wisdom through lyrical gymnastics and b-boy contortions, Yankee and the Brave come out victorious, each with a twinkle in the eye. “RTJ4” is an album that finds two colorful characters from different cultural epicenters exceptionally well-versed in hip-hop traditions, bringing the gravest topics of today to light with both the swag and the gravitas to mobilize us toward better ends. 

RTJ4” is available June 3 on Apple Music.