RTJ4 review: Run the Jewels' cathartic new album makes for an empowering weapon of civil disobedience
Just when it felt like we were short of words, Run The Jewels' Killer Mike and El-P offer us a free catalogue of protest poetry with RTJ4
On the track "Walking in the Snow" in Run the Jewels' RTJ4, Killer Mike describes a scene similar to what happened in Minneapolis 10 days ago: "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'." George Floyd's dying words before he was killed by a white policeman ring loudly in our memory because they were the same uttered by Eric Garner in 2014 before he suffered the same fate. "I can't breathe" has since become a rallying cry in protests over police brutality across the US. Acting as a record of a murder and a movement, RTJ's new album thus feels proactive and reactive at the same time. Although it was recorded in 2019, it gains new resonance with the events of the past two weeks.
But the clincher in the aforementioned track comes in Killer Mike's following words: "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." He condemns armchair empathy in the face of state-sponsored violence, and its role in normalising predatory policing. He also diagnoses the frustrating "issue-attention cycle", where a horrifying tragedy reintroduces an issue from the fringes for media scrutiny for a brief period of time, before attention shifts to new issues. And with the Trump administration (and an ongoing pandemic), it's virtually a new issue every day. Still, Americans have weathered coronavirus and curfews to gather in masses to demand justice for Floyd and fight racial inequality. So, RTJ's album couldn't have come at a better time. It may just be the spark needed to keep the fire of resistance burning.
If the words perfectly capture the rhetoric of resistance, the music is imbued with an emancipatory ethos that makes it ideal for a crowd to rap along. Just when it felt like we were short of words, Killer Mike and El-P offer us a free catalogue of protest poetry, which includes collaborations with 2 Chainz, Pharrell Williams, Rage Against The Machine's Zack de la Rocha, Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme and even soul legend Mavis Staples. True, their 11-track album is available for free on their website, but you can choose to pay for it. The proceeds will be donated to the National Lawyers Guild Mass Defense Fund, which provides legal support to the political activists fighting for racial justice.
RTJ4 could do what Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet did in the '90s. It could shape the identities of future black generations, while ensuring this generational struggle is never forgotten.
From the opening track "Yankee and the Brave (Ep. 4)", Killer Mike makes his thoughts on police violence clear. Against a wall of pounding percussion, he brings righteous energy to confessional catharsis, asserting which way he'll go if he is confronted by a trigger-happy policeman: "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." It's hard not to recontextualise a lot of the lyrics to current events: you feel the rage in the words — "First of all, fuck the fuckin' law, we is fuckin' raw" — in "Ooh La La", but you can't even begin to feel the weight of the words, "PTSD streets did the damage," in "Holy Calamafuck". "Out of Sight" is an excellent display of Killer Mike and El-P's lyrical chemistry in a track, where 2 Chainz makes a rather unaffecting appearance.
"Goonies vs. E.T." exemplifies the idea of hip-hop as something more heartfelt and transcendental than just a music genre. Listen to these words: "Rulers of the world will slice it up like a dinner pie/ Race in a nation told you to identify/ People take false pride and warfare incentivized/ Fuck that, me and my tribe we on an iller vibe/ We accept the role of the villains cause we been villainized/ Stomped to the dirt of the Earth we still will arise." This kind of music can't be born in a vacuum, it can only be born against a backdrop of historical oppression. It's a unified voice of an uprising, a community which was deprived of the American dream it helped build and now, hopes for a reckoning.
Of course, one can't fight social injustices without taking down the system that enables them. RTJ do just that in "Ju$t": "Mastered economics 'cause you took yourself from squalor (Slave)/ Mastered academics 'cause your grades say you a scholar (Slave)/ Mastered Instagram 'cause you can instigate a follow (Shit)/ Look at all these slave masters posin' on yo' dollar (Get it, yeah)." Trading the mic back-and-forth, Pharrell Williams and Zack de la Rocha bring a fresh bout of energy to the proceedings.
With the world turned into one "calamafuck", RTJ4 is a vital weapon of civil disobedience. Even if it may not help overturn the regime, it can capture the spirit of the movement and even call future waves of protests into being. Like she has been doing since the '60s, Mavis Staples taps into this spirit of the civil rights struggle in the eerie chorus of "Pulling the Pin". "Every cage built needs an occupant", and Mike reminds us how black people have been prisoners of a system rigged against them. Condemning the "filthy criminals sitting at the system's pinnacle", RTJ believes their mission forward is spiritual, not political.
In Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, Radio Raheem (who was also choked to death by the police) talks about his "love" and "hate" knuckle rings. He describes life as a never-ending battle between the left hand of love and the right hand of hate. More often than not, it is the hand of hate that tends to "kick ass". But just when it seems like the hand of love is down for the count, it counter-attacks and delivers a knock-out blow to the hand of hatred. Like Raheem's parable, RTJ4's concluding track "A Few Words for the Firing Squad (Radiation)" empowers people with words of courage in the face of despots emboldened by their president. It's a tribute to the protesters who fought and lost their lives — and those continuing the fight: "Satisfaction for The Devil, goddammit, he’ll never ever have it/ This is for the do-gooders that the no-gooders used and then abused/ For the truth tellers tied to the whippin' post, left beaten, battered, 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’."
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