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By golly everybody, isn’t it great to just take a nice break from talking about politics and just listen to an album? Everything is so political nowadays, the only way I can escape the doldrums of life is to consume as much apolitical media as possible. Because thinking sure does make my big brain feel weird in a way that I don’t have the vocabulary to describe. It’s been hard to find good apolitical music of late, but I’ve compiled a short list. First, there’s that famously apolitical band, Rage Against the Machine. They don’t promote the deep cultural Marxist plot to put black women in fantasy novels, so there’s definitely no politics involved there. Second is Five Finger Death Punch, as there’s nothing political about writing songs about uncritical militarism. And the third, my favourite apolitical song, is John McCain, who whilst running for U.S. presidency, got a crowd of people to sing “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb-bomb Iran”. And now, it’s time for a good old-fashioned music review, with no politics whatsoever. I haven’t actually read the lyrics for this yet, so let me just pop onto Genius.com, take a BIG sip of coffee and-
Okay, that’s enough, my joke of mocking apolitical-loving music nerds has definitely run its course by now.
‘RTJ4‘ is the fourth album by Run the Jewels, the talented and lauded rap and hip-hop duo of El-P and Killer Mike, and the numerically logical follow-up to ‘Run The Jewels 3,’ if you can believe it. And just like the album’s name, it’s indeed similar to its three predecessors, with some necessary, noticeable and subtle changes to help keep this project fresh and relevant. One of the things I adore most about this duo is their obstinate refusal to follow popular trends. This isn’t even coming from a “kids these days” perspective, I just appreciate the audacity it takes to look at contemporary trends in popular rap and say “yeah, we ain’t doing that”. As this fourth album contains no mumble-rapping, no real R&B influence, and no instructions for dances to be sold in fucking Fortnite.
‘RTJ4‘ can be largely described by using any of the same music writers terms as their last three albums. Mike and El-P rap about the most important rap topics, how fucking cool they are, and the necessity of glorious liberation for all peoples across the world, over beats that fall somewhere between the diverse and detailed, bass-heavy beats of trap music with the perfunctory boom-bap production of the 1990’s. You could definitely criticise Run the Jewels for just sticking to what they do best, but you also cannot criticise them for doing what they do very well. The fact that the world isn’t sick of them after four albums now is a towering testament to their ability to change and experiment within their own well-defined boundaries. Whilst also offering biting and raw social-political commentary.
Now, honestly, I’m not personally super knowledgeable on the ins and outs of beat making and music production (I’m more of a lyrics guy, but we’ll save that for last). While I can recognise that El-P’s production has become very weird, with some beats sounding quite psychedelic or science-fiction inspired, like on ‘pulling the pin’, I don’t have the know—how to explain them and why they stick out so well. So in lieu of simply going song by song, I’m going to go over some really solid left hooks that El-P threw with his production that particularly struck me. Strap in.
First, the Gang of Four sample on ‘the ground below’. El-P samples the main riff to ‘Ether’, which makes a lot of sense given the politics of Gang of Four and how they compare to that of Run the Jewels, even if Gang of Four are more explicitly leftist. The brittle, clangy guitars make a surprisingly propulsive beat that fits right in with the song’s attitude. Second, the amazing change halfway into ‘holy calamafuck’. After some sinister, rising bass that sounds like something from the glorious Mandy soundtrack, the beat changes from a cacophonous series of random sounds that barely resemble a coherent beat (but in a good way) to some sparse electronic drumming and ambience that are all so coated in reverb, they could’ve very well been recorded in a cave.
Last, and definitely my favourite, is the entire production of closer, ‘a few words for the firing squad (radiation).’ The main beat, if you can call it that, is in ¾, and it has the quality that a lot of older arcade game soundtracks do. Sounding like it’s constantly rising in intensity and moving toward a conclusion, though never reaches, adding this hair-raising tension, which makes sense given the song’s critical lyrics about the pair rising to fame and fortune. But it’s truly the additions of the tenor saxophone from Cochemea Gastelum that make the production as brilliant as it is. Because it pairs with the song so gracefully, including the duo’s flows, and the sax solo that leads to the song’s climax is legitimately my favourite moment in music all goddamn year.
That all is by no means an exhaustive list of the production that struck me on ‘RTJ4,’ simply some cherished favourites off the top of my head from a record that’s full of class and instrumental and vocal features (from Josh Homme, Pharrell Williams, DJ Premier, and others) that elevate things higher.
Now, onto the bulk of the review: the lyrics. The opening song, ‘yankee and the brave (ep. 4)’, casts Mike and El-P as a pair of noble fugitives in the style of old T.V. shows like The A-Team. The same theme pops up at the end of the final song too, making the album loop back around on itself nicely. It’s a theme that works well for the duo, since it puts them on equal footing and allows them a framing device to brag about how great they are because they’re being faithful to the pastiche. And there isn’t a small amount of bragging. There’s no shortage of lyrics about banging women, making money, and selling drugs, which are hardly unusual topics to hear in rap, but those aren’t the main focus for Mike and El-P. The main focus is, of course, the aforementioned politics.
For the sake of brevity, I’ll look at lyrics that loudly stand out rather than going balls-deep song by song. (Sorry, that’s just not my thing.) In ‘walking in the snow’, both ending lines from El-P and Mike refer to how many Americans interpret Christianity:
El-P: Pseudo-Christians, y’all indifferent, kids in prisons ain’t a sin? Shit. If even one scrap of what Jesus taught connected, you’d feel different.
Mike: Never forget, in the story of Jesus, the hero was killed by the state.
While not exactly subtle or obscure, this is a good examples of how distorted many Americans’ understanding of Christianity is. As Killer Mike reminds us, The Bible’s Jesus was closer to Fred Hampton and Malcolm X than Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. Wildly misinterpreting the Bible isn’t just an American phenomenon, though. Australia’s own PM, Scott Morrison, is a member of a church that think the best interpretation of Jesus’ teachings, one of which was “sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor”, is that the more money you have, the more Jesus loves you. Truly, it seems that any kind of misguided thinking is possible with the power of Christ.
Another lyric that stands out to me as a literature nerd is this line of El-P’s during ‘JU$T’:
“Got a Vonnegut punch for your Atlas shrug.
They love to not love, it’s just that dumb.”
Before I start, I should say that for legal reasons, I do not condone trying to fight people who read Ayn Rand. But on the other hand, it’s hard not to if you’ve ever talked to one of them. As El-P says, “they love to not love”, so-called Objectivists fight against the urge to give a shit about other people and instead espouse things like: “the world would actually be better if everyone was a massive piece of shit”. It really is an ideology for edgy white teenagers. Also, before I move on, regarding the Kurt Vonnegut reference, the world definitely needs more rapping about relatively obscure science fiction. Look man, on ‘RTJ5,’ I just want El-P to write a 10-minute song about post-scarcity anarchism and The Red Mars Trilogy, okay?
The very same song also contains a red hot verse from their regular collaborator, Zack de la Rocha. In keeping with his love of radical politics, he talks about Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Slave Revolt, which eventually led to a revolution in the country. And boy, to think some people thought RATM only became political recently, good lord.
Yet my favourite, again, is taken from final song, ‘a few words for the firing squad (radiation)’. In it, the pair try to reconcile their fame and success with their upbringings. El-P’s first verse describes his rise to fame as an uncomfortable experience:
“You know how everything can seem a little out of place?
All of my life, that seemed to be the only normal state
So feelin’ normal never really meant me feelin’ sane”
When “normal” meant precarity, lacking any idea of what the future held, El-P found it difficult to adjust to living comfortably, with a relative sense of security. But, this relative comfort and sense of security comes at a price, and El-P can’t ignore that, as a rich and famous person, he’s got some pretty shitty company.
“You ever notice that the worst of us have all the chips?
It really takes the sheen off people getting’ rich”
Of course, having money doesn’t inherently make you a shitty person. But, having access to the levers of power, and wanting desperately to hold onto that access, is enough to corrupt a person, and El-P touches on that. Whereas El-P’s verse is about coming to terms with his success, Killer Mike’s verse is about dealing with personal and political issues despite his success. Killer Mike’s first verse deals with juggling the struggles of mental health, being a public black rights figure, and being a husband and father. After touching on his guilt about missing the death of his mother, and about how that drove him to sedatives to cope. Then, he stops to consider his position as a potential civil rights leader (as MLK shows, black civil rights leaders tragically don’t have to be openly revolutionary in order to be murdered), and what that means for his family:
“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
All in all, I find this to be my favourite album from Run the Jewels so far. The lyrics touch on important, contemporary politics without ever feeling preachy or overwrought, while the more braggadocious content still manages to be fun, if maybe not exactly original. And it’s been a real journey to see how El-P’s production has developed and changed over the course of four albums. He seems to have really hit his stride on ‘RTJ4,’ even if the production on the last three albums was always great to begin with. The beats range from simple, to psychedelic, to science fiction-inspired, and none of these arrangements or the flows between Killer Mike and El-P ever grow stale. Don’t miss what is one of the most timely, socially and politically relevant albums of 2020. A world like ours right now needs an album like this.
yankee and the brave (ep. 4)
ooh la la (feat. Greg Nice & DJ Premier)
out of sight (feat. 2 Chainz)
goonies vs. E.T.
walking in the snow
JU$T (feat. Pharrell Williams & Zack de la Rocha)
never look back
the ground below
pulling the pin (feat. Mavis Staples & Josh Homme)
a few words for the firing squad (radiation)
‘RTJ4’ is out now: