It's Run The Jewels, sucker. What'd you expect?
Unless you decamped to a cave atop a mountain or were attending a month-long, silent meditation retreat, you surely know that Run The Jewels released their latest spectacle, also know as an album, RTJ4. The musical and commercial hip hop juggernaut, composed of El-P and Killer Mike, graciously allowed the album to be downloaded for free, a soundtrack to the dystopian times in which we live. If downloading is not enough, you can also buy the album in a variety of formats, buy a t-shirt or a hoodie, a bandana, a Ricky and Morty pistol-fist shirt, a pillow, a fine art print, a sherpa fleece blanket, a tote bag, a woven blanket, a “Warriors Print Edition,” a button pack, a puzzle, a “New Era Golden Patch Fitted Hat,” and, even a coffee mug that says “Kill Your Masters,” because nothing better illustrates your radical chic bona-fides than drinking your morning joe in a “Kill Your Masters” cup. If these selections are not enough for you, you can also download, gratis, “Meow The Jewels,” or “Just Blaze Presents: Meow The Drums.” You should know that the “pistol-fist track jacket” is sold out, and maybe, like me, you were disappointed that you cannot purchase an official RTJ grinder, for all your grinding needs.
The good news? RTJ4 is lean, the fat removed from the bone, which distinguishes 4 from the previous two, which all threatened to collapse under the weight of both clutter and expectations. The new music is hard and unrelenting, but it still doesn’t surpass the nuclear explosion that was RTJ1.
Both men are facile rappers, although Mike has the edge, in both style and force, El more conversational. The times have caught up to El Producto’s sound, which may be the reason why sub-woofers were invented. His rumbling, progressive rock aesthetic melded to funk metal is as instrumental to RTJ as the men’s voices, and their enduring partnership.
The value of that partnership is a symbolic one, too, a black man and a white man, co-equals in an enterprise brimming with life, their thinking clear-eyed, their vision utopian, their anger righteous and true. They have bandoliers filled with words strapped across their chests, and they fire at will and with abandon, gunning down shibboleths, racists, hypocrites, fake Christians, poseurs, social media influencers, the prison industrial complex, the military industrial complex and, pedophiles, too.
Killer Mike’s 2012 release, R.A.P. Music, remains the best RTJ album not released under the RTJ moniker. It’s as fierce and uncompromising as any major release, genre-bending in its own way, and it owes as much to punk, country music and Bob Dylan, as it does to the traditions of hip hop. It is Mike’s Fear of A Black Planet, or Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album. In “Reagan,” when Killer Mike finally spits “I’m glad Reagan dead,” the contempt with which he fires off the words grabs you by the neck, and starts to squeeze the life out of you. Mike don’t play. It’s “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” crossed with “Whitey On The Moon,” and “Okie From Muskogee” thrown in for good measure.
There is nothing subtle about Run The Jewels. El’s production is dense: he throws the kitchen sink at the wall and waits to see what sticks. Lyrically, the words bludgeon you when a lighter touch might do, but these guys perpetually have murder in their eyes and the topics they rap about are serious and demand to be taken seriously, too.
The songs on RTJ4 fly by, and there’s no wasted space. “ooh la la” imagines a utopia, when the masters have been killed, money abolished and the people free, and features Greg Nice, of Nice & Smooth, (props!), and DJ Premier. Primo’s contribution to the track is not immediately evident, but the song does include scratching and a simple, looped piano melody. “out of sight” features 2 Chainz, who is in fine form and has developed into a nimble artist and an effective guest, a long way from the Tity Boy days. “holy calamafuck” samples digital dancehall star Cutty Ranks in the introduction, (he showed up on Mac Miller’s Swimming), and Cutty always seems like he has murder in his eyes, too, especially when his voice is slowed down and processed.
Gangsta Boo appears on “walking in the snow,” which metaphorically speaking, is the most penetrating and compelling song on the album, poetic in the beauty of its words, but menacing in sound, and the lyrics are sharply observed and an indictment of the time and place in which we find ourselves. Boo brings it, and the song would be less substantial without her. Guitars whine and synthesizers buzz. Mike lets you know “I’m readin’ Chomsky/I read Bukowski,” and “And you so numb, you watch the cops choke out a man like me/Until my voice goes from a shriek to a whisper/’I can’t breath’/And you sit there in the house on the couch and watch it on TV.” Mike isn’t playing here either, and one wonders if he was prescient, remembering Eric Garner, or knew from experience that history repeats itself, again and again and again.
“Ju$T” features Pharrell Williams AND Zach de la Rocha. A first? Your view of this one may depend on how you feel about Rage Against The Machine, but don’t worry because de la Rocha’s processed voice sounds more Mike D than Rage. “a few words for the firing squad (radiation)” ends the album: “For the truth tellers tied to the whippin’ post/left beaten, battered and bruised/For the ones whose body hung from a tree like a piece of strange fruit/Go hard, last words to the firing squad was/’Fuck you too.'”
So, if RTJ has to move pillows, art prints, t-shirts, blankets and recordings of mewling cats in order to keep releasing albums, that’s the price we have to pay. How many major artists today would allow fans to download their album for free, because the world feels fragile and scary, but as Mike reminds us, was always that way for black folks. With any luck, RTJ20 is somewhere in our future; we know that Killer Mike and El Producto will keep fighting the good fight until it’s not necessary any more, and then they can retire, a job well done. In the meantime, “kill your masters,” metaphorically speaking, of course.