“You watch the cops choke out a man like me… ‘til my voice goes from a shriek to a whisper, ‘I can’t breathe’” goes Killer Mike on “Walking in the Snow”, a song recorded months ago, and which now sounds frighteningly prophetic considering George Floyd’s murder from suffocation at the hands of a cop.
Then you realise it’s not prophetic at all; that George Floyd is simply the latest in an endless line of young black men choked to death by the police in the US. Killer Mike’s verse is actually about the murder of Eric Garner, a previous victim of police brutality; if we don’t get our act together (as a world community – I’m actually British, and I don’t mean to be lecturing you Americans specifically, as this is a global problem) then his verse will be applicable to many more names in the future.
Luckily, the next lines in “Walking in the Snow” already sound dated. Mike goes on to criticise the political apathy of a generation saturated by media outrage: “You sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV/The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy”. Except George Floyd’s death has caused anything but apathy: huge-scale protests across America and around the world, with people of every age, race and economic background involved, have erupted with momentous force. Here in my country, statues of slaveowners and colonialists have been torn down, petitions have been signed not to help arm the American police, and racially insensitive programmes have been removed from online platforms, all in the last few days. And in America, real change seems likely to be brought about from the protests, at both local and national levels, including hopefully radical change to a police force rife with endemic racism.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you that protesting doesn’t effect change.
The point is that Mike’s pessimism about the apathy of this generation has proven to be untrue: whether it’s the conditions of a pandemic in which BAME people have suffered worst, 4 years of a racist president, or the unshakeable horror of the video of George Floyd’s murder itself – whatever it is, something has snapped, people’s rage has been unbottled, and it seems impossible to imagine that things can ever be unsnapped again without huge, radical changes to society.
We are living through seismic times. And if there’s still a world in 20-30 years’ time, if there’s still a Hollywood making films, then they’ll make films about this moment in time, and you better believe that the soundtracks for these films will all contain tracks from Run the Jewels, the foremost politically-charged rap group in America.
Run the Jewels don’t only do political rap, of course. As anyone who’s followed them throughout their four-album evolution will know, there’s plenty of goofy rhymes in their music about shooting poodles, waving banana dicks around, putting dicks and pussies in people’s mouths all day (with consent, of course), and whatever other random shit pops into their minds. As Killer Mike and El-P explained in a recent interview in the Guardian, this whacky sense of humour is an integral part of who they are, a big reason for the snowballing of their cult popularity, and a uniting front for a long-running musical duo in that they share the same kind of humour.
But it’s also a political act in itself. Their having fun and throwing off ridiculous rhymes about whatever takes their fancy is another way of sticking the middle finger up to political powers that want them, as radicals, to despair at the state of the world, want them to give up and be apathetic and depressed. As El-P puts it: “I want the oppressors to know they haven’t created hopelessness”.
So RTJ4, like its predecessors, is first and foremost a lot of fun. Just keeping track of Killer Mike’s ambitious rhymes (my favourite is “smokin’ indica” with “Michael Render, bruh”), cultural detours (he reveals he’s more a fan of the Joker than Bruce Wayne on “Ooh La La”), and charismatic flow is a joy. Then there’s El-P’s production, which is as layered and beatwise as ever, interlocking well-chosen samples and synth hooks and effortlessly woven-in guests such as 2 Chainz, Mavis Staples, and of course Zack de la Rocha, with consummate ease.
Yet there’s a sense of higher-stakes drama that helps RTJ4 to forge its own identity and edge ahead of stiff competition from the three previous RTJ instalments. That much is evident right from the start on “Yankee and the Brave”, a Butch Cassidy & Sundance Kid for the modern age, with Mike facing off a hundred cops with one bullet. He decides to use that bullet to shoot himself, but that wouldn’t be suicide, he insists: “I can’t let the pigs kill me, I got too much pride”. The rest of the album sounds so urgent it’s almost as if it all takes place in Mike’s mind as he faces the barrel and prepares to pull the trigger.
The atmosphere throughout is ferocious, nervy, outraged – despite the aforementioned, and very important, sense of fun. Killer Mike is always on fire, equally devastating on his political outbursts, desecrations of enemies, and frequent tributes to his late mom (“When my mother transitioned to another plane, I was sitting on a plane/Tellin’ her to hold on, and she tried hard, but she just couldn’t hang”). He has some of his best-ever verses on the album, and he’s clearly as fired-up as he’s ever been, with a real sense of impatience at the age he’s living in creeping as usual into his virtuosic raps.
El-P is less effective on the mic, although he does get in a few good lines, such as this anthemic slogan for our times: “What a disingenuous way to piss away existence” (an attack on the kind of “pseudo-Christians” who prop up Trump). His flow is less magnetic than Mike’s: more modest, less attention-grabbing, less technically and emotionally proficient. His lesser ability has hampered all of the Run the Jewels albums to date, and RTJ4 is no exception. Often when you’re listening to him go at it, you find yourself instead longing for Mike’s re-entry.
But El-P is a kind enough guy that he realises his secondary status on the mic, and so plays the sidekick to his buddy. Most songs start off with an El-P verse, before amping up and unleashing Killer Mike in order to reward and blow the socks off any sympathetic listener. Which is to say that El-P works as a hype man to Killer Mike: first by playing the opening support act to him in each song’s structure, and second by his production, which often kicks into a higher gear as soon as Mike takes the mic. This latter element is most evident on “Goonies vs. E.T.”, where El-P’s verse is followed not only by a chorus but by an instrumental drum break with heavy crowd noise played on top, a crescendo of excitement to set up Mike’s subsequent entry and make it all the more effective.
Which is to say that there’s a kindness, a real charm in the interplay of this duo, a mutual respect in which they bring out the best in each other. Hence, Run the Jewels prove themselves to be a great band on RTJ4, and not just a combination of two separate talents working together. Their unity represents all that we hope for, and dream of, in the shortly upcoming new world order.
This writer recommends that instead of going to the usual streaming platforms to listen to this album, you should download it for free on RTJ’s website and donate as much money as you can spare to the Mass Defence Program.