Music Reviews

The Joy and Anger of RTJ4


Genre: Alt-Rap

Favorite tracks: “ooh la la,” “walking in the snow,” “JU$T,” “a few words for the firing squad (radiation)”

“I’m mad as hell.”

Killer Mike, one half of the hip hop group Run the Jewels, took to a podium in his hometown of Atlanta to deliver a powerful speech as protests first broke out across the US in late May following the murder of George Floyd. The speech quickly spread across social media as people grasped for any sense of direction and leadership they could find while a revolution began in the streets. RTJ4 could not have come at a better time. Though written and recorded before the 2020 protests began, the album is aptly suited for the moment. One could justifiably declare RTJ4 prophetic, but when you live in a country that refuses to admit its past sins, anyone who’s paying attention can see we are doomed to repeat them.

“Back at it like a crack addict,” Killer Mike raps, delivering the first of many blows with the album’s opening lines. He and his partner El-P waste no time on “yankee and the brave (ep. 4),” a fantasy track depicting the duo as a pair of outlaws who eventually kill a racist cop. “Yankee and the brave are here / Everybody hit the deck/We don’t mean no harm / But we truly mean all the disrespect.” There is a primal sense of urgency echoing throughout the album as the duo descend into healthy rage.

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For readers unfamiliar with the group’s visage, I feel compelled to mention that Killer Mike is Black and El-P is White. The duality of their experiences allow them to deliver their message to the masses. El-P’s anger is presented as equally as Killer Mike’s, though he yields Mike the floor when appropriate. The sharp and clever interplay between the duo is at its peak, and El-P’s production has finally found the balance between big arena sounds and the scrappiness that makes Run the Jewels so compelling. Pivoting from the frenzied and expansive sounds of the duo’s previous albums, RTJ4 is precise and calculated in its indictment of American culture and the racist systems that this country was founded on.

One of the album’s most powerful moments comes with Killer Mike’s verse on “walking in the snow” as he calls out social media keyboard activists and bystanders alike. “And everyday on evening news they feed you fear for free / And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / And ’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe.’ / And 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.” Tracks like “ooh la la,” “goonies vs. E.T.,” and “JU$T” find the duo having the most fun they’ve had since Run The Jewels formed in 2013. Even when confronting heavy subject matter, Killer Mike and El-P exchange blows with playful energy, their chemistry undeniable. The two recognize that our world is absurd and know that sometimes the best way to address that is through laughter.

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Run the Jewels have always been at their best when leaning into extreme emotion, whether it be a blackout rage or that goofy level of fun you can only find when dicking around with your best friends. Despite, or perhaps because of, the anger that sweeps across RTJ4, it has a palpable joy intermingled with every violent punch to the gut. After all, joy and anger are two sides of the same coin, emotions of extreme passion that are alike in many ways. As we’ve witnessed in the demonstrations and protests happening across the globe, there is intrinsic happiness born from the hope that fuels the fight. Federal agents are moving into U.S. cities, enacting war crimes against their citizens. Rubber bullets. Tear gas. Kidnapping. It’s enraging to witness, but there is joy in fighting back. Whether it’s taking to the streets, signing petitions, or bullying your city’s mayor and police union on Twitter, anger and joy are powerful when harnessed in tandem. RTJ4 understands this and is a critical listen not just because of the moment, but because of the movement.

Becca Lengel
Becca is a New England native who now needs a sweater when it drops below 70 degrees in Southern California. When she’s not yelling about Tom Brady, you can probably find her brushing up on early 2000s pop culture or watching BURNT (2015).

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