Run The Jewels’ forth studio album – ‘RTJ4’ – feels like the perfect record for our current political climate – touching on themes of police brutality, capitalism, inequality, climate change and violence against women. While other artists attempting to offer political commentary often fall into the trap of mindlessly repeating political talking points, Run The Jewels offer the sort of raw, unique and meaningful commentary that can only come from having lived experience of the brutalities of modern-day society.
The album’s release date – June 3rd 2020 – was sadly timely; coming just after a week since the killing of George Floyd. Despite being written and produced entirely before the murder, sixth track ‘Walking in the Snow’ feels as though it was directly inspired by the killing, with Killer Mike rapping “And you so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me / Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe”.
However, ‘Walking in the Snow’ is far from the only song that feels especially important in this political climate. Multiple songs touch on police brutality, like opening track ‘Yankee and the Brave’, which scorns a “crooked cop” who “murdered a black child”, while ‘JU$T’ (which features Pharrell Williams) examines the racist and exploitative nature of our ultra-capitalist economic system (“look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo dollar”).
What shines through on ‘RTJ4’ is the duo’s (but especially Killer Mike’s) depth of political knowledge and understanding. While a myriad of rappers have used their music to condemn racism and capitalism and other societal ills, few have done so while referencing Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’, ‘Strange Fruit’ and, the unionisation of sex workers.
The lyrical content of ‘RTJ4’ is subversive in a way that instantly grabs listeners attention; showcasing the authenticity behind the album and, the hardships endured by Killer Mike and El-P through their lives. While other singers and rappers write lyrics that romanticise drug-dealing and, demean and dismiss women, the duo steer clear from doing any such thing. Not just do they avoid fuelling these harmful narratives, they actively push back on them. In the album’s forth track, Killer Mike opens up about the grim reality of dealing drugs (“Rappers rap about it like it’s so romantic / But I still can’t seem to escape the panic”), meanwhile, in ‘The Ground Below’ he stands up for the rights of sex workers (“So I support the sex workers unionizing their services”).
The album really comes into it’s own during it’s most raw and vulnerable moments. When Killer Mike sings of the death of his mother (“Black and beautiful, the world broke my mama heart, and she died an addict”) and El-P sings of his sister’s rape (“This is for my sister, Sarah, honey, I’m so sorry you were hurt”), the rappers convey more emotion and agony through their voices than they do at any other point in this album.
With ‘RTJ4’, Run The Jewels have put out one of the best albums of the year. In discussing a range of both current, topical issues (such as families being separated at the border) and wider societal issues (power, evil, injustice, etc.), the duo have created an album that is both timeless and highly relevant for the current day. The album features a number of other artists, and while some of these features don’t add much to the album, none take away from it’s enjoyability, and many manage to elevate tracks on the album from being good to being great. In ‘JU$T’, Pharrell manages to make the song his own, while allowing the talents of El-P and Killer Mike to shine through, while the inclusion of 81-year-old gospel singer Mavis Staples on ‘pulling the pin’ creates one of the most affecting moments on this album. Despite having an entire discography of high quality music, Run The Jewels have managed to outdo themselves on this album; creating a record that is both an essential listen for 2020, but also for the years to come.