Published on June 12th, 2020 | by Dave Scaddan0
Running Down the Jewels of RTJ4
As a supplement to our review, we take a deep dive into RTJ4 and the references that Killer Mike and El-P weave into their lyrics.
Editor’s Note: We ran a review of Run the Jewels’ new album, RTJ4. But Dave sat down and took a deeper look at the “jewels” of the album, just to show us how brilliant these guys are. Two RTJ articles in a week? Hey, it’s no secret the people behind The Feedback Society are huge fans of Run the Jewels.
Along with all the necessary disruption provided on RTJ4, there’s also a lot of necessary instruction. One of the things that makes me sure this album will be a stayer are the nuggets, the chunks, the jewels, if you will, that Mike and El (but especially Mike) leave laying in the dense lyrics that pulse through this record. RTJ4 is full of referential starting points where a listener might discover much more than just a great album.
Throughout RTJ4, the lyrics become even more personal, more autobiographical than in the past. Not just the kind of “Yo, I’m the shit” expressions of self that have always been essential to rapping, either (though RTJ4 does that too). I’m talking about bars that begin with phrases like, “I should’ve focused mostly on . . .” or “It’d be a lie if I ever told you that . . .” Serious introspection. Rapping about their parents, their regrets, their lessons, Run the Jewels are on another level this time out, and part of reaching that level involves letting us in on how they’ve gotten where they are. Let me just diverge here to some thoughts about Jim Jarmusch.
Jarmusch has always been one of the filmmakers whose work I look forward to most and enjoy revisiting often. The most enriching things about his films, for me, are the jewels, the little placements of other artists’ work that he just sets down in case anyone feels like picking them up. Through his movies, I’ve discovered Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Tom Waits, Rashomon, (both the book and the Kurosawa film) White Hills, Lou Reed, Nick Cave, Yasmine Hamdan, Hagakure, and rediscovered William Carlos Williams. I’m definitely forgetting some stuff JJ has schooled me on and that’s a whole ‘nother article. But this is what RTJ4, in its frenetic, Nation-of-Millions-esque dropping of nuggets does for me in a way that few records or movies or books have done.
And I am not just talking about references here. I like a good reference-drop as much as the next person, but the RTJ4 jewels are all that and more. When you pick up on an artist’s reference, it ties you together by congratulating you for getting it. It makes you feel cool that someone you think is cool thinks someone else you think is cool, is cool. But that’s about it, it’s a wink and nod moment that’s there and then it’s gone. When Kim Gordon, in the chorus of ‘Kool Thing’ starts singing about “walking like a panther” and then sneers, “I don’t think so” a certain way, you might realize she’s got something to say about LL Cool J. If you don’t pick up on it, (and it’s definitely not a given that Sonic Youth fans would) it’s still a rockin’ track, but Kim is winking at you in case you’re ready. It may not be deep, but the way it hits is kool.
When Killer Mike or El-P drop a jewel, it feels more Jarmuschian, like a book or a blu ray being placed wordlessly on an end table and left there. It feels like a roadmap to somewhere beyond the album, beyond the group. It feels like the start of a lesson that the learner must partake of on their own after being given just the gentlest of shoves, like, “hey, did you ever check this out?” Allow me to run down some of my favourite jewels on RTJ4 that could push listeners beyond its eleven tracks.
In ‘ooh la la’, Mike wafts both Old Dirty Bastard and Jeru the Damaja under our noses, giving us a little “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” and stating that his linguistics actually are Jeru, practically in the same breath. He’s telling us where to look if we want more while we wait for RTJ5, both times to places we may have been before, but haven’t likely visited lately.
A later verse dips into a whole way of thinking about heroes, in this case in comic books. A sample from Mike:
“I used to love Bruce, but livin’ my vida loca
Helped me understand I’m probably more of a Joker.”
The whole “who’s the real hero? who’s the real villain?” way of looking at the DC universe is not new to ‘ooh la la’, but it’s certainly an odd paradigm to find in a hip-hop track. Plus there’s a Ricky Martin reference in there just for an extra bullet to the brain.
The lesson continues on ‘out of sight’ when Mike estimates the weight of his uzi. It weighs a ton. RTJ usually throw a PE jewel into the drawstring bag somewhere, but it’s typically an It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back or Fear Of A Black Planet throwback (like later on ‘Goonies vs E.T.’ when Mike takes us back to the Terrordome). This one leads all the way back to the earliest of Public Enemy’s vibes with simpler beats and a power that came from simplicity more than complexity. Mike even throws in a little vocalized “brrum-pum-pum-pum” that’s similar to the beat on ‘Miuzi Weighs a Ton’. Most rap tracks would just sample or reprogram that beat; ‘out of sight’ weaves it into the actual lyrics – sublime. When I broke up my RTJ4 binging by going back to that track on 1987’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show, I was thrilled by how fresh it sounded, and how the production flourishes stab just like El-P’s do.
This track also self-labels Run The Jewels as “Ghost and Rae-relating”. That’s already the second nudge toward Wu-Tang on the third song of the album, people.
Usually when rappers reference Scarface, (the movie, not the rapper) it’s to relate to and glamorize the over-the-top defiance of any cock-a-roshes who might stand between them and domination. When Killer Mike does it later on ‘out of sight’, he reminds us that Sosa, not Tony Montana, is the real “boss” (and arguably the winner) of that grandiose story. Did we need another reason to watch Scarface? Maybe not, but there’s a new lens to see it through. And by placing this jewel, Mike also subtly reminds us – as he has before – that those we are often led to believe are “at the top” are really just decoys that distract us from corrupt power. Remember when he rapped about “the man behind the man behind the man behind the throne”? That bar dropped in 2015 on RTJ2 – think about what’s happened since then.
Need more movie suggestions from your hardcore rap tracks? ‘holy calamafuck’ has us covered, taking us back to the Halloween franchise with a Mike Myers mention and a name-drop of Clockwork Orange. That last one could be a reading suggestion, actually.
One of the most well-hidden jewels on RTJ4 (besides, of course, from the ones I never found, which I’m certain are there) is on ‘goonies vs E.T.’ when El-P raggedly slides the name Tenor Saw into some bars about a planet that’s in danger of crashing like an out-of-control Cadillac. If you don’t know who Tenor Saw was or how he died, I’ll leave the shine of that jewel for your eyes only.
Probably the most jewel encrusted new track is ‘walking in the snow’. Right off the bat, El gets a little self-referential, reminding us of the work he did with Mr. Len and Bigg Jus as Company Flow in the 90s. RTJ fans who are unfamiliar with Funcrusher Plus have some digging to do. Next, as a way of coming down from the “I can’t breathe” verse that’s the most hard-hitting moment on RTJ4, we get a laid-low syllabus from Mike that includes Noam Chomsky and Charles Bukowski.
I’ve been investigating the Dick Gregory name drop that pops up right after the reading list, and I still have more to do. Dude believed in some strange theories, and had no problem expressing anger to interviewers who asked questions he found inane. A taster: Dick Gregory had a theory that there are actually two Donald Trumps. Take it seriously or don’t, but there’s something in the strength of Gregory’s conviction in the ways he seems to say, of course Warren Buffet had Prince killed. For real.
Next, after an Illmatic plug from El, Mike tells us he gets “Radio Raheem respect” which constitutes my favourite jewel drop on RTJ4. I love Radio Raheem.
This vital character played by Bill Nunn in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and his “right hand love/left hand hate” monologue are eerily wise right now. And remembering the fate of Raheem is especially troubling as I write this on the day of George Floyd’s funeral service. I still remember how shook I was was when I watched Night of the Hunter starring Robert Mitchum and realized that Spike Lee had cribbed the love/hate dialogue from a 1955 film, turning Mitchum’s knuckle tattoos into Raheem’s four-finger rings. That makes this a jewel inside a jewel inside a jewel with a 65-year history, and that’s not the longest reach-back on RTJ4 either, but more on that later.
Even though Killer Mike places more jewels than El-P on RTJ4, El places a real whammy on JU$T, which is an early contender for my fave of these eleven new tracks.
“Hand on my heart and my mind on my drugs
Got a Vonnegut punch for your Atlas Shrug.”
Time to kiss my fingertips and spread them gently to the air. A gut punch is a very apt description of what El-P has always gone for in his best bars, and I love seeing him actually pit two references against each other. There’s so much going on visually in these two lines. Kurt putting dukes up against Ayn, a capitalist showing apathy while an anti-fascist shows allegiance, a muscle-bound statue absorbing a body blow – very powerful writing, and El-P just tosses it in there like a subtle seasoning instead of basing a whole song or concept album on this spark of genius.
Okay, last one. It’s the second-last line of the last song on the album. It’s the moment where Killer Mike speaks the words, “strange fruit” at the end of ‘a few words for the firing squad (radiation)’. It’s not a rare jewel, it doesn’t try to outsmart the listener or give us a kool wink, it just lays down the legacy of sadness and suffering that the world is trying to rally against right now. Those two words take us back even farther than the 81 years since Billie Holiday released her 78 on Commodore Records. They go back to 1937 when Abel Meerpool published the poem that would become ‘Strange Fruit’ in a teachers union magazine. They then go back to the 1930 photograph of the hanging bodies of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith that inspired the poem. From there, we can go all the way back to 1555 if we choose to, and Killer Mike only needs two syllables to push the boat out and begin the trek.
One more link that’s a great example of how Killer Mike (excuse me – Michael) can drop jewels without a pen. It’s been about a week since he appeared on Fox Sports 1’s Undisputed to be interviewed by sports shouters Shannon Sharpe and Skip Bayless. This is a show that usually uses testosterone-fueled yelling to hype the passing sports headlines of the day and to concoct drama out of balls being thrown and caught. Watch Michael Render turn this program into a gatling gun of potential learning sources just like many of his verses do.