Published on June 8th, 2020 | by Craig Silliphant


Run the Jewels – RTJ4

Run the Jewels are back with RTJ4, another spellbinding record of protest bangers, raunch, and sonic ideas that couldn’t have come at a better time.

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Pretty sure I started the countdown for RTJ4 the day RTJ3 came out.  This time out, with America burning before our very eyes, Run the Jewels aren’t fucking around. They didn’t create this time in history, nor are they riding it for popularity — Killer Mike and El-P been purveyors of incendiary sonic protest since before they were even working together. The times have caught up with them, is more like it.

RTJ4 dropped a few days early, because, “fuck it, why wait?” And while they still have a sense of humour and endlessly clever wordplay, they’ve dialed back some of the silliness in favour of fury.

In the song ‘walking in the snow,’ Killer Mike says, “And every day on the evening news they feed you fear for free.  You so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me.  Until my voice goes from a shriek to a whisper — I can’t breathe. And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV. The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it tragedy.”

Some might wonder — how did they turn that lyric around after the death of George Floyd with the relevance speed of a South Park episode?

They didn’t.  The lyric was about Eric Garner, a black man that was executed by police on Staten Island in 2014, choking him out just like they did to George Floyd. Other officers stood by and watched, just as they did with Floyd. And someone recorded the whole thing on a cell phone camera, a transmission beamed to the rest of the world, just like Floyd.  His last words?  The same as Floyd’s: “I can’t breathe.”

It’s not prescience — it’s a disturbing pattern.  And pulling patterns out of the murk, giving clarity to things, cutting through the bullshit, is what Mike and El do best.  As I said, they were already rapping about police brutality and black lives — the rest of us have just caught up with them en masse.

That lyric also talks about Twitter, and another theme of the album is that the revolution won’t be televised — or digitized.  RTJ attacks not only fascist cops, but fascist woke Twitter as well, the pitchfork and torch call out culture mob that are the mirror image of the alt right trolls they hate. Twitter, Instagram, and the rest might often be powerful tools in the fight, but the idea that they can change things is also a fallacy. People use those digital tools to spread hate, misinformation, and as Mike points out, slacktavist apathy or faux wokeness. The real revolution won’t be televised or digitized — it will happen in the neighbourhoods.  That might mean peaceful protest.  That might mean rioting.

Themes aside, musically, RTJ4 another notch on their pistol grip. These albums have so much going on that you’re still noticing little bits after years of listening. There are so many clever little bits buried throughout, sometimes just a sound, sometimes a lyric, or sometimes just an off-kilter way of delivering a line.

As usual, El-P’s production is not just setting raps to some beats he whipped up. His production is a living, breathing thing, intertwined with the flow of the rhymes. It perfectly matches their rapping; tracks can be angry or playful, or both at the same time.

Like South Park, nothing is sacred for Run the Jewels. Though they’re older than most ‘hot’ musicians, they’re still as fresh as the dude in the Irish Spring commercials, even after four albums.  They’re trouble-making gremlins, mynocks chewing on the power cables, disrupters of both sound and thought, where raunch meets sweet, sweet agitprop. They’ve seen it all and lived to rap about it.  They are the past, present, and future all at once.  And like NWA or PE before the, RTJ4 is the exact right expression of sound and words for what is happening in the world, right now.

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is a D-level celebrity with delusions of grandeur. A writer, critic, creative director, editor, broadcaster, and occasional filmmaker, his thoughts have appeared on radio, television, in print, and on the web. He is a juror on the Polaris Music Prize and the Juno Awards. He loves Saskatoon. He has horrible night terrors and apocalyptic dreams.

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