The success story of Run the Jewels is one of my favourites in recent memory. Hell of an opening, bias flat on the table… I know. Former Company Flow member and influential solo artist El-P and south scene kingpin Killer Mike first met in 2011 through a mutual friend, Cartoon Network’s Jason DeMarco. They hit it off, already fans of each other’s extensive bodies of work, and a year later, El would produce the Killer Mike solo LP, R.A.P Music.
El released a record of his own at a similar time, Cancer 4 Cure, and Mikey repaid the favour with a feature on the track ‘Tougher Colder Killer’. They toured together to promote both albums, before ultimately deciding to record their own joint project, the critically acclaimed, self-titled, Run the Jewels. The rest, as they say, is history. Cut to 2020 and they’re still at it. RTJ2 and 3 fared just as well in that respect (and better, commercially) and the two have amassed an energetic and dedicated fanbase.
Hysteria surrounding the inevitable RTJ4 began in autumn of 2018 when a new track, ‘Let’s Go (The Royal We)’ debuted on Apple Music. It wouldn’t make the album, but it did light the match that birthed the fire. It was a bit of a wait from there, but Mike and Jaime gave everyone what they were after at precisely the right moment: two singles to stave off the Covid blues in March of 2020: ‘Yankee and the Brave (ep. 4)’, and ‘Ooh La La’. Those songs, in that order, open the album, and we’ll hear about them shortly. Even at this stage, the release date for the album was still unclear. El-P cleared the air on Twitter, telling fans that sample clearance had halted anything from moving for a while.
Then, seemingly out of left field, the end goal was in sight. We were shown the now iconic fist and gun, this time out with a clean geometric spin – and June 5th was go. The 5th became the 3rd because, to quote their reasoning: “Fuck it, why wait. The world is infested with bullshit so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all. We hope it brings you some joy”. I’ll take it. Zero complaints out of me.
‘Yankee and the Brave (ep. 4)’: the fictional “episodic” about the lives of Mikey and El-Producto starts riled up with multi-syllabic rhymes at machine-gun speed. The levels are being reset; the two are keen to remind you that this is how they operate. When we get to substance, we’re glancing at the rotten world of the day. Never the type to shy away from difficult topics, the police are on blast (and I suspect not for the last time) as Killer Mike poignantly lays it down: “I got one round left, a hundred cops outside / I could shoot at them, or put one between my eyes / Chose the latter, it don’t matter, it ain’t suicide, and if the news say it was that’s a goddamn lie / I can’t let the pigs kill me, I got too much pride, and I meant it when I said it, never take me alive”. The track closes with a clear exclamation of “Four”. Don’t worry, I know exactly what I’m listening to.
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Next, the warped piano clangs of ‘Ooh La La’ begin to land around me. The second I hear that Greg Nice sample from ‘DWYCK’, I suspect we’re getting a brag track out of this. Say nothing, I don’t care, that instrumental is ridiculous. El walks the beat nonchalant as you like, awarding himself the moniker of “maximum stupid”. He’s right, and it’s still not in the top five things he does best. I can’t talk circles around RTJ equipping their ‘it’ factor… it’s an ungodly flex that these two writers have the width of style they do, effortlessly mixing the measured with the madcap. It shouldn’t work, but it does, and it’s becoming more fine-tuned. The final chorus contains scratching courtesy of DJ Premier, and it sounds so at home amongst every other effort to stir up a vintage feel.
The bass and backing vocals of ‘Out of Sight’ hold hands and jump all over the drums. The track soon opens up for the frequent instruction to “Run” pre-bar. Either that or a means of ensuring you remember the name. This is a style affair; I’m getting ‘Blockbuster Night Pt. 1’ from RTJ2 vibes, and that can only be a compliment. This punches less than the aforementioned, instead opting to merely ooze charisma instead of beat you to death with it. “We are the motivating, devastating, captivating / Ghost and Rae relating, product of the fuckin’ 80’s” nods to the Wu-Tang Clan, and kick starts a wild verse from Mikey. The finishing 2 Chainz feature is fun, if a little superfluous, but it flashes past and before you know it, you’ve been dropped in the dense jungle known as ‘Holy Calamafuck’. What is going on here then.
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El’s production so far on this record has been absolute insanity. I don’t seem to be able to read where it’s going – if I manage to actually figure out that it IS going somewhere. Unpredictable alone isn’t necessarily a positive trait, although I do find myself pleasantly surprised each and every time the instrumentals frankly humiliate my ear. This is another of those instances.
‘Goonies vs E.T’ sounds like a song with that title should. The rolling, Prodigy-esque drums that build momentum as and when, the lurking synth chords, the classic electronic clap sounds that clearly shaped the youth of the duo… all of them work together to create this familiar, yet new environment out of 80’s and 90’s components. Killer Mike talks about “a license to ill, with a license to kill”, and that Beastie Boys ethos, turned up to 12 (and swinging) couldn’t be more accurate in describing RTJ. Another nod to the Wu, “May our tombstones read: they were nothin’ to fuck with” and the tone of this album is about to change indefinitely.
‘Walking in the Snow’ and ‘JU$T’ don’t just hit the nail on the head, they sink it clear into the wood. RTJ have been trying for years to express themselves politically, and in one man’s opinion have struggled with the sound of sincerity, despite how interesting what they’re conveying may be. The sonic framing of their points and ideas has always been a little awkward, and as much as that shouldn’t take away from the messages… the format is the format and it did. Here though? Overhaul; and it’s not as if they needed all too much fixing to begin with. Hearing Mike’s verses on the former of the two songs was an incredibly moving experience, one which I revisited many times afterwards to properly drink in.
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His perspectives and experiences on/with systemic racism and police brutality warrant a couple of visitations to comprehend magnitude. For example, hearing the last words of Eric Garner repeated, in wake of the murder of George Floyd who shared them (this happening since the time of recording) is just harrowing beyond belief. The features are picked expertly: Gangsta Boo’s vocal gives a lot to the hook of ‘Walking in the Snow’, and Rage Against the Machine frontman Zach de la Rocha’s inclusions to ‘JU$T’, in terms of power and delivery are phenomenal, before you’ve listened to a word. That said, definitely pay attention. These aren’t just two of the best tracks on the record, these are two of the best tracks from RTJ.
‘Never Look Back’ is a comparatively weak affair; even in a vacuum it wouldn’t fair much better. The concept is strong though, and the MCs walk through the stories of their lives and collected wisdom. Common themes are shared, dissected, and quickly left alone in the spirit of the title. The fuzzy guitar bounce of ‘The Ground Below’ is infectious. Mikey takes umbrage with gods and monsters, and El lays down the fundamentals of leadership. Both appear on the hook, subtle as ever, informing anybody necessary that negative opinion of RTJ could never actually amount to damage: “And I put it on Jaime and me, we just gave you inspiration for free / The money never meant much”.
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The last ten minutes of the record has a point to prove. ‘Pulling the Pin’ combats the many pitfalls and human cost of late capitalism (a light listen, sure you’ve gathered), and ‘A Few Words for the Firing Squad (Radiation)’ is an epic of heart-on-sleeve confession before facing the final curtain. Both feel like Run the Jewels with the bullshit filter off. Don’t get me wrong, all that braggadocio is an element fans return for, but it’s refreshing to hear what’s underneath the self-serving spiel; to hear the content essential to back up the talk.
I’ve heard Run the Jewels described as an ancestor to punk, and it’s hard to disagree. Punk as you wanna think of it, anyway; not as constructed, marketable and homogenised (don’t get me started). Rather, the shined up “fuck-em-all” testament at its most bold. Following no leaders, and rhyming to the beat of their own giant, shiny, probably gold-plated drum.
Run the Jewels 4 did everything that 3 did and then some. It matched the tenacity and ludicrous punch-per-minute counter of the second record, and launched deep into the strange like the debut. Put simply, this is the consummate Run the Jewels experience and I couldn’t be any higher on the project. The wait was more than worth it.