Run the Jewels reflect 2020’s unrest with the sociopolitical Molotov cocktail of RTJ4 | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Run the Jewels reflect 2020’s unrest with the sociopolitical Molotov cocktail of RTJ4 

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click to enlarge Run the Jewels

Run the Jewels

Tim Saccenti

The fourth Run the Jewels full-length, RTJ4, is the hardcore rap duo’s first since Donald Trump’s inauguration. Not at all by coincidence, it’s also the most sociopolitically outspoken album they’ve released to date. On their third, released at the end of 2016, rapper-activist Killer Mike and rapper-producer El-P let poignant, sober lyrics about war, religion, love, and redemption shine through the cracks in their armor of car-bombing braggadocio. Their fuck-the-power attitude and rap-battle instincts also inform RTJ4, which features plenty of the group’s characteristic mix of John Carpenter-esque synth sounds, boom-bap beats, and trap rhythms. The album unflinchingly addresses the societal ills dominating the zeitgeist of 2020, and it feels especially prescient given the nationwide protests against racist police brutality that had started by the time of its release. “Walking in the Snow” begins by addressing the Trump administration’s child-separation policy: “Pseudo-Christians, y’all indifferent?” raps El-P. “Kids in prisons ain’t a sin? Shit / If even one scrap o’ what Jesus taught connected / You’d feel different.” Killer Mike then references the tragic killing of Eric Garner and similar cases of police brutality, and sadly foreshadows the murder of George Floyd by law enforcement: “And everyday on the evening news, they feed you fear for free / 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 breathe.’” On “JU$T,” the most trap-inspired track on the album, guests Pharrell Williams and Zack de la Rocha take turns telling us to “look at all these slave masters posin’ on your dollar” before El-P makes his own allusion to Garner: “The X on the map where the pain keep hitting / Just us ducks here sitting / Where murderous choke-hold cops still earnin’ a living.” Other tracks talk about murdered oligarchs, unions for sex workers, and media-manufactured propaganda. Even the video for “Ooh La La,” one of the biggest bangers on RTJ4, depicts the end of capitalism, with people dancing and burning money in the streets. What began as two new friends making fun, cocky rap tracks that bridged El-P’s old-school east-coast roots and Killer Mike’s southern style has grown and matured over four albums. The duo still drops lines about being “cool as penguin pussy on the polar-cap peninsula,” but these days even their most violent fantasies and most boastful we’re-the-shit swagger reflect a deeper understanding of the human condition. RTJ4 also touches on issues of the heart and soul, with recurring themes of gratitude, personal growth, self-medication, and being broken down by the world’s evils. On “Pulling the Pin,” special guest Mavis Staples sings the most heart-wrenching refrain on the album: “There’s a grenade in my heart / And the pin is in their palm.” The album is an unflinching criticism of the world, packaged in hilarious chest-thumping bombast, dystopian synth sounds, and head-banging beats. Run the Jewels might not be soothsayers, but RTJ4 will go down as a defining soundtrack of 2020.   v

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