Kendrick Lamar once said, “Critics want to mention that they miss when hip-hop was rappin’/ Motherf*****, if you did, then Killer Mike would be platinum.” As great of a line as that was, let’s make one thing clear; all forms of hip-hop are respectable. Lyricists, mumble rappers, crooners, they all have their place within the genre. Moreover, while we often look for messages in our art, understand that you won’t find it in what I like to call “easy listening rap.” Artists who view hip-hop as a competitive sport tend to challenge themselves. They think of more elaborate rhyme schemes, pick more challenging beats to rap on and (some) interpolate different subject matters in their music. Easy listening rappers find a formula and stick to it, no matter how redundant their sound. However, their inability (or unwillingness) to change does not invalidate them. We need fun-party music, but we need the former as well. Hip hop duo Killer Mike and El-P probably won’t go platinum with this latest effort – much to Kendrick Lamar’s chagrin – yet, their latest project — RTJ4– is undeniable.
Originally scheduled to be released June 5, the album was pushed up, releasing two days early, with an accompanying note: “F*** it, why wait. The world is infested with bullsh** so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all. We hope it brings you some joy. Stay safe and hopeful out there and thank you for giving 2 friends the chance to be heard and do what they love. With sincere love and gratitude, Jaime + Mike.”
The fourth installment of the Run the Jewels series covers similar themes as its predecessors: racism, capitalism, socioeconomic issues. Basically, you know what you’re going to get. Even so, their ability to pinpoint America’s discriminatory ways – and Killer Mike doing an excellent job of reversing the black community’s ethos from victimhood to one of power – have resulted in 39 minutes of thought-provoking content, which is not a given in today’s hip hop climate. On “walking in the snow” Killer Mike exposes the corrupt ways in which black people are targeted, while attacking the black community themselves for their acceptance of their role as casualties.
“The way I see it you’re probably freest from the ages one to four / Around the age of five you’re shipped away for your body to be stored / They promise education, but really they give you tests and scores / And they predictin’ prison population by who scoring the lowest / And usually the lowest scores the poorest and they look like me / And every day 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 / But truly the travesty, you’ve been robbed of your empathy / Replaced it with apathy, I wish I could magically / Fast forward the future so then you can face it / And see how f***** up it’ll be / I promise I’m honest, they coming for you / The day after they comin’ for me.”
Throughout the project, Killer Mike shares several cathartic moments with the audience while veteran emcee El-P plays the role of ally, addressing the nation’s corruption. On the album’s intro “yankee and the brave (ep.4)” he raps,
“it’s scammer bliss when you puttin’ villains in charge of shit / All of us targeted, all we doin’ is arguin’ / Pardon them as they work until every pocket’s been picked and soul been harvested / I’m ready to mob on these f***** Charlatans.”
On the same track, Killer Mike takes the term “Black Power” to a whole new level by doubling down on his refusal to be martyred. “I got one round left, a hunnid 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.”
It is noteworthy to mention that he also did this, but his words are powerful nonetheless.
He maintains his stance of power throughout the project, only relenting on the albums outro “a few words from the firing squad (radiation),” where he grapples with his role as a famous entertainer, his potential to make a difference within the Black community, its sometimes deadly consequences and the divisiveness it can cause within Black families.
“It’d be a lie if I told you that I ever disdained the fortune and fame / But the presence of the pleasure never abstained me from any of the pain / 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 / Been two years, truth is I’ll probably never be the same / Dead serious, it’s a chore not to let myself go insane / It’s crippling, make you want lean on a cup of Promethazine / But my queen say she need a king / Not another junkie, flunky rapper fiend / Friends tell her he could be another Malcolm, he could be another Martin / She told her partner I need a husband more than the world need another martyr.”
Even with excellent lyricism, there are supplementary elements that make this album noteworthy. While the duo’s cohesiveness is seen through their mutual world views, the beat selection, however, is raw and unfiltered. Heavily rock influenced, RTJ4’s production is not always sonically pleasing – possible to deter the masses who are only trying to hear “good vibes.” Instead, they are purposeful. Loud guitar riffs, drums and alarms are heard throughout as they amplify the messages. Almost as if they picked beats that would not allow the audience to drift away (sometimes a catchy beat or chorus can hinder the record’s message).
Run the Jewels 4 is meaningful. Not only because of the subject matter, but the delivery itself. In our current climate, it’s rare to find conscious rap that doesn’t portray Black people as victims. El-P and Killer Mike take the opposite approach, challenging the oppressed to defend themselves, let’s hope they take heed.