“…a shotgun blast to the face.”
Run The Jewels thrives on the spirit of rebellion. The duo, consisting of Atlanta rapper Killer Mike and New York rapper/producer El-P, has grown from indie one-off to one of the most impressive second winds in rap history. Their music finds the middle ground between cartoonish purist rap thrills and anarchic grit. At their very best, Mike and El-P will have you ready to burn everything in sight.
While RTJ’s music has always maintained an anti-establishment bent, the aggression on their 2016 album Run the Jewels 3, in particular, was channeled through the prism of revolt. In the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and the election of the 45th President of the United States, RTJ’s lawless spirit made them, however unintentionally, uniquely suited to address a world coming apart at the seams.
In the face of Armageddon, RTJ’s message hit differently. Four years later, with another wave of protests taking place in response to Black death looming large over the world, Run the Jewels are offering their fourth album, aptly titled RTJ4.
The public needs music directly speaking to the times. Mike and El’s timing is perfect; the stakes have never been higher. Let’s see if the Jewel Runners are up to the challenge.
In usual 1-Listen fashion, the rules are the same: no rewinds, pauses, or skips—a straight shot through followed by my gut reactions. Let’s ride.
1. “Yankee & The Brave (ep. 4)”
Killer Mike opening with DaBaby speed. Man, these drums are THUMPING. “I’mma terrorize the actors playing like they want some drama.” No holds barred. Mike and El-P play rap hot potato like no other. El is floating. “I’m ready to mob on all these charlatans.” The beat sounds like a John Carpenter score stripped for parts and hooked to some boomers. “I can’t let the pig take me, I got too much pride / I meant it when I said it, never take me alive.” This exact energy is what I was hoping for. Revolt music right off rip. No brakes, all nitrous. “Yankee & The Brave” is how you open an album.
2. “Ooh LA LA” feat. Greg Nice & DJ Premier
Did El-P source his drums from fucking mortars? These boys are monstrous. El’s beats are big enough to walk through. I don’t like this hook. Greg Nice’s voice is grating. “When we usher in chaos, remember we did it smiling.” They may be smiling, but Mike and El sound pissed. “Ooh LA LA” isn’t playful music; it’s angry. This song doesn’t leave me shaking the way “Yankee & The Brave” did, but it’s still a nice jolt of catharsis. Premier scratches are always a plus. I’m glad he’s still so revered by rappers across generations.
3. “Out of Sight” feat. 2 Chainz
El-P made a beat out of jumping vocal cuts that would sound at home on a post-apocalyptic workout tape. He never fails to impress. I love hearing references to Public Enemy’s “My Uzi Weighs A Ton.” Mike and El are trading off lines. “I’m only doing what I want by hocking loogies at the swine.” I see why they wanted to push this project up two days. Forget “F*ck The Police,” this is FUCK THE FUCKING COPS. Mike caught a CRAZY flow and held onto it forever. The energy is stabbing me in the chest. If you’ve ever downed a bag of Pop Rocks with nails inside, then, and only then, will you understand the power of “Out Of Sight.” Here comes 2 Chainz. One mention of growing up in poverty, but the rest of his verse is just soulless flexing. It’s not 2 Chainz’ fault, but I’m not tryna hear his verse right now.
4. “Holy Calamafuck”
A reggae sample to start things off. And everything just devolved into a 404 error. The beat is actively falling apart. A line about jacking Supreme jackets and calling out hypebeasts. Are those record scratches or Windows 95 program glitches? I can’t keep my head straight. A line about drones and time elves. “Every other goddamn year I’m brand new / It’s been 20-plus years, you think that’s a clue?” TALK YOUR SHIT, EL. Since the Def Jux days. Mike and El stood the test of time, gotta respect it. These two were born to rap together. “PTSD, streets did the damage.” Mike is pouring his heart out. If the streets run red with blood, “Holy Calamafuck” will be the soundtrack.
5. “Goonies vs. E.T.”
These drums and synths were sourced from space. Mike and El are rapping for their lives. “Goonies vs. E.T.” is pure fucking chaos. How did they keep their heads together recording over this beat? E.T.’s healing touch couldn’t help them. The hook’s not doing much for me—it feels like dead space—but the beat is breathing. Man, this shit is manic. I’m on a sugar high. “The revolution is televised and digitized.” All facts. Mike has one of the most potent rap voices. I can’t see his face, but I know there’s fire in his eyes. “This is people with an attitude in Beverly Hills.” Making people uncomfortable is progress.
6. “Walking In The Snow”
A nice crunchy guitar riff to incite more chaos. The beat just cracked open, and now it sounds like a fucking Tesla coil. I feel more compelled to type the word “fuck” than I ever have during a review. “All oppression’s borne of lies.” El has been talking that talk all across this shit. El sounds like a preacher. “Just got done walking in the snow / Goddamn that muhfucka cold.” Who’s rapping on the hook? OH SHIT, IT’S GANGSTA BOO. Nice surprise. OG needs more love. “Every day on the evening news, they feed you fear for free.” Mike is laying everything out. “I can’t breathe.” That line really hurt. “The most you get is a Twitter rant and called a tragedy.” He’s just talking at this point. Brutal. I know he was fighting back the tears rapping this one. The beat is mutating like crazy. I can’t keep up—breathless rap music at its finest. I love love LOVE this song, holy shit.
7. “Ju$t” feat. Zach De La Rocha & Pharrell Williams
It’s the famous four-count! Pharrell must’ve had a hand in production along with El-P. Pharrell’s voice doesn’t fit into the cracks of this hook; it’s distracting. “Look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar.” Mike is doing call-and-response with himself. He’s talking about corporations co-opting marijuana and pedophiles in high places. “Confuscious say you’d better thug out.” That got me. El has a thing for turning voices into drum patterns. These beats are fun but they will also turn around and rip your throat out if you try them. Here comes Mr. Rage himself, Zach De La Rocha. His voice cuts through everything. I love how analog his voice sounds. He sounds fired up. I’ll take another Rage Against the Machine album, please. Without Pharrell, “Ju$t” would be close to perfect.
8. “Never Look Back”
A little techno bounce to start “Never Look Back.” All I can see in my head is Tron light cycles burning digitized vapors. Was that a Pop Smoke bar? His death still hurts. Mike and El managing to rap about current events and not sound lame is amazing. No other rapper their age could pull off a TikTok bar. Mike is rapping about his mother. Did she pass? Man, that’s heavy. So that’s why it’s called “Never Look Back.” “All that matter is gratitude. Gratitude is everything.” Who’s speaking right now? Can’t make it out. El is talking about how he never saw class or race as a child. Mike follows with, “Never look back, you’ll only be bitter / If you get bitter, you’ll never get better.” They’re confronting demons. RTJ4 feels as immediate and punchy as Mike and El’s respective solo work. Ending with a ticking timer, always coming through with the relief.
9. “The Ground Below”
Is this nu-metal I’m hearing? These guitars and smashing drums are super silly, even by RTJ standards. They rapping, though. “Screaming fuck the world and you can drink what’s coming from my urethra.” El always knows how to rap familiar shit differently. “Not saying it’s a conspiracy but you’re all against me.” Funny. A weird melange of sounds and images, and I’m not sure what to make of it. The raps are crazy, and the beat is kinda growing on me. Easy to believe them saying, “The money never meant much” when they’ve been giving out their albums for free since 2013.
10. “Pulling The Pin” feat. Josh Homme & Mavis Staples
Okay, last two tracks. If you’re gonna name a track “Pulling The Pin,” there’d better be an explosion. Ominous marching and some warbled vocals. “These old foxes got a lot of plots to outfox us.” El hit that Aesop Rock flow real quick. Those chorus vocals are ghostly. Josh Homme is a name I haven’t heard in a long time. Shout out Queens of The Stone Age. “Every cage built needs an occupant.” Is that Mavis Staples? It is! Her vocals are so rich. Staples finding space in this interstellar mayhem is wild. Mavis is my favorite feature so far. There’s much less frivolous shit-talking this time, especially from Mike. “Kicking and screaming while watching the demons collecting the gold and the diamond residuals.” Career-best rapping from Mike. More Mavis, thank God. “There’s a grenade in my heart.”
11. “A Few Words for The Firing Squad (Radiation)”
RTJ4 has been a ride. Ending with the firing squad can’t be a good sign. El starts with a short tribute to his wife. Touching. Mike back to rapping about asking his mom to cling to life. His kids, his wife, and his craft have made him a better man. These are death-bed confessions set to music. Mike and El must be rapping blindfolded, standing in front of the wall and the firing squad. Heartbreaking. “Last word to the firing squad was ‘Fuck you, too.’” Kicking and screaming. It sounds like we’re going out with a big instrumental explosion—saxophone, brass, and reverbed synths and choirs. This is BIG.
Where do Mike and El find the energy to keep expanding their sound like this?
Oh, we’re not done yet.
A narrator is laying down the story of two rebels forced together by the odds. They’re still running with this Yankee & The Brave angle. It’s playing like an end credits song. So… The whole thing’s been a TV show? I’ll admit, this takes away some from the immediacy of Mike and El’s message.
Final (First Listen) Thoughts On Run the Jewels’ RTJ4:
Run the Jewels dropping their fourth album in the middle of a global pandemic and a nationwide uprising is perfect.
The duo crafted a potent mix of braggadocio and political and personal reflection set to beats made for video game boss battles. Both Mike and El deliver career-best work behind the mic, and El-P’s production has only grown more expansive.
Golden-era boom-bap (“Out of Sight,” “Holy Calamafuck”), and murky synth-scapes (“Never Look Back”) are flayed and split open to create digitized warzones. They’re as frantic and restless as the rappers pushing them to their limits.
From beginning to end, RTJ4 is a shotgun blast to the face; an album to turn up to 11 while the precincts burn. Pent-up emotions shoot through every bar, every beat, and every second of breathing room. The anti-police sentiment couldn’t be more timely.
The only time the momentum drags on RTJ4 is when other voices cram into the frame. Several features are either inappropriate (2 Chainz on “Out of Sight”) or distracting (Pharrell on “Ju$t”).
Unintentionally, the running motif of the Yankee & The Brave TV show stifles some of the immediacy from Mike and El’s best verses to date. Maybe the TV show angle will age better in a world where the president didn’t just declare war on his fellow citizens.
Minor missteps aside, Mike and EL understand the stakes at hand. RTJ4 mixes the punchy and the profoundly personal with cartoonish zeal, EPMD by way of Adult Swim’s Superjail!
Politically and musically, Run the Jewels are done asking for favors. RTJ4 is five-finger discount rap at its finest.