ALBUM OF THE MONTH - June 2020: Run The Jewels - RTJ4

Back At It, Like Crack Addicts

Run The Jewels - RTJ4 (2020 Jewel Runners LLC)
 

Run the Jewels shouldn't exist. Pairing two 45 year old rappers EL-P and Killer Mike together into a hip-hop collective simply should not have a place in a generation saturated by Tik Tok teenagers, playfully designating any and all generations even slightly older than themselves as “Boomers.” Yet, somehow, the two have cemented themselves at the forefront of 21st century rap, releasing three excellent projects throughout the 2010s, pushing them to the cutting edge of modern hip-hop, despite their age, as El-P admitted:

“let's just be real, I know Mike doesn't like talking about it—but two dudes who were born in 1975 are not supposed to be allowed to be at the cutting edge of music. We're not supposed to be allowed to be at the table.” (GQ)

The two possess a certain dynamism and an ability not to take themselves overly seriously (the Meow the Jewels remix album from 2015 instantly springs, or pounces, to mind), as their humour represents a massive part of their appeal, along with their undeniable talent. They do not claim to be prophets, they simply observe, confidently sound-tracking a moment in society with each additional album. On their latest album, they are depicted as “Yankee and The Brave” in the style of a fictional buddy comedy television show, painting El-P as “Yankee” and Killer Mike as “The Brave”. Dick jokes and juvenile insults have faded (though not vanishing completely), replaced by a slightly apocalyptic humour, which is at times genuinely scathing. El-P compares a burning skyline to a Bob Ross painting, and in the following verse Killer Mike calls out people who have “been hypnotized and Twitter-ised by silly guys” on the pounding, in your face club banger ‘goonies vs ET’.


The pair aim to shake even the most passive of listeners out of their complacency, with direct attacks on wide ranging issues such as racist police, poverty, corporate media and the evils of money and capitalism, continuing the duo's consistent activism and political motivations. A standout track is ‘Walking in the Snow’, featuring a series of verbal attacks on the media’s coverage of police brutality against black men, arguing that people are desensitised by overexposure to another person’s trauma as Mike drops the bar “robbed of your empathy, replaced it with apathy”, after choking out the words of Eric Garner and George Floyd and pointing a finger in accusation: “You so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me”. His voice is growling and prickling with urgency.


JU$T’ is a testament to the duo's ability to write another in a long line of brilliant protest songs, as Mike’s first line of the hook “look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar”, is punctuated with a tongue in cheek “Get it?” from Pharrell Williams. In one line, the song displays the racism in America’s history and it’s weight in the present, a sentiment echoed in the recent toppling of slavers statues. The hook is cycled over a bouncy minimalist instrumental and features an instantly recognisable four count start – the song oozes Pharrell at his best. There is also an unlikely pairing of Pharrell and Rage Against the Machine’s Zach De La Rocha on the third verse, as Zach brings an aggressive delivery while Pharrell harmonises in the background. It’s an unlikely pairing, but in the world of RTJ it works incredibly well.


El-P’s vocal performances are some of the best he has given on ‘Pulling the Pin’, as he meditates on capitalism and the struggle of playing the game of money – an anti-capital sentiment RTJ have dished out numerous times in the past. Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age fame provides guitar riffs as El-P’s production builds up to a stunning chorus from Blues Hall of Famer Mavis Staples, followed by a snarling verse from Killer Mike, who continues to point the finger at the corrupt in society, asserting that their mission is not political, but spiritual, “a murderous miracle that was sent here to just punish the terrible”. The album’s climax ‘a few words for the firing squad’ includes more revealing and personal verses, as the two make clear that the album is for the beaten “truth tellers”, the used “do gooders” and disparaged and oppressed bodies, over swelling saxophones. Here, it is a concern for those that are closest to them that induces their rage and their verses fade into a cinematic instrumental break, bringing in the classic television-esque passage by Matt Sweeney and A$AP Ferg, harking back to the first track.


The pair remain as versatile and magnetic as ever, with triplet flows on the energetic ‘ooh la la’ featuring input from hip hop legends Greg Nice and DJ Premier. The inclusion of the two, combined with scratching across the record by Trackstar the DJ and Cutmaster Swiff intentionally situate a project that, for all of its futuristic qualities, pays tribute to old-school hip hop at its core. El-P has never sounded as hungry and animated as he does on the intro, spitting in a flow that fires off like gunshots: “Stack addict, a mack with the blackest fabric on back I magically rack it and dash while I'm duckin' rat-a-tat-tats”. ‘holy calamafuck’, is another braggadocious banger, with a chopped up sample of Jamaican dancehall musician Cutty Ranks, as El-P and Mike deliver two aggressive verses that lead into a beat switch, building as El-P defines the pair: “one for mayhem, two for mischief”, and the two verses fall between an cacophonous scream of “Fire! Fire! (lights, lights!)”. It’s a teeth shattering switch as chords swell in the background, but fade away as the song closes with a slightly understated vocal outro. It’s a rare moment on the project that felt like it deserved a little more development, but is nevertheless an undeniably hard-hitting track.


In contrast, El-P’s production is as prolific as ever on ‘Out of Sight’, with what sounds like an organ being contorted with reverb and distorted into a bombastic beat. While the record does not have El-P and Mike collaborating throughout verses quite as tightly as previous projects, instead having the two deliver more thematic long passages, there is no chemistry lost and this cut is perhaps the best example: “Here come the menaces to sobriety, like what? Super thuggers thumpin' on the cut / My motherfuckin' Uzi weighs a ton, Hit the drum 'til you hear it go "brrum-pum-pum-pum" is a stand out moment. A short feature from 2 Chainz goes as expected, as the rapper manages to squeeze in gems like: “I’m cool as AC” and “I buy a hot dog stand if I’m tryna be Frank”. The three are dripping with charisma and their natural energy is in full force.


The album undertakes a balancing act between braggadocios “menaces to sobriety” and their compulsion to speak on issues that society faces, but it is a balancing act that they pull off remarkably well. The wit functions to hold the album together, so that even when it is at its most serious it is surrounded by the narrative of the comedic duo of “Yankee and The Brave”. Mike references two writers on ‘Walking in the Snow’, namely Charles Bukowski and Noam Chomsky. These are two writers known to speak unapologetically, famed for their ability to tell the world as they see it. The reference makes thematic sense, as the two voice their opinions self-referentially, bluntly and unapologetically on an album that seems to authentically capture their essence as fathers, husbands, rappers, entertainers, and activists.


The opening statement that the two are “back at it, like a crack addict” is honestly very hard to refute. Run The Jewels are as charismatic, energetic, inventive and as abrasively unique as ever on one of the best rap albums of the year so far.

 

- 8.0 -

excellent


highlights:

'walking in the snow', 'out of sight', 'JU$T'

 

Fin Cousins is an English literature student studying at Kings College, London. He is an avid consumer of sports, fashion and music. He is still waiting for his rap career to take off. He also made our logo.


Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based in South Wales.


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