Written by on 2021-01-16

I’m not going to lie, writing a musical review in 2020 was a bit of an obstacle course. This year was clearly the epitomy of what we call a “GSU year”. For those who read me for the first time (nice to meet you, make yourself at home, there are beers in the fridge), the GSU theorem stipulates that the shittier the year, the better the music. And when it comes to a shit year, this was clearly on the highest of levels.

It became so bad that even just talking about music was, for me, extremely complicated given everything I had in my head. I started a large numbers of reviews without being able to finish them. But I have to finish this one because this record is important. And even though this a rock radio, we need to talk about a rap album.

RTJ4 album cover

Released on 03/06/2020 / Jewel Runners/BMG

Links :

Tracklist :

01. Yankee And The Brave
02. Ooh La La (feat Greg Nice and DJ Premier)
03. Out Of Sight (feat. 2 Chainz)
04. Holy Calamafuck
05. Goonies vs E.T.
06. Walking In The Snow
07. Ju$t (feat Pharell Williams and Zack De La Rocha)
08. Never Look Back
09. The Ground Below
10. Pulling The Pin (feat Mavis Staples and Josh Homme)
11. A Few Words For The Firing Squad

Line-up :

Jaime “El-P” Meline (MC, Production)
Michael “Killer Mike” Render (MC)

Kill Your Masters

RUN THE JEWELS is a hip-hop duo created by rapper/producer Jaime “El-P” Meline from New York and rapper Michael “KILLER MIKE” Render from Atlanta. The first one is known since the late 90s for his originality and the absolute ruthlessness of his beats, the second one emerged in the early 2000 thanks to a very impressive flow and powerful lyricism. After their collaboration of KILLER MIKE 2012 release “R.A.P. Music”, they decided to create RUN THE JEWELS. They released their eponymous first album in 2012, followed by “Run The Jewels 2” in 2014 and “Run The Jewels 3” in 2016. For those interested in dates: the Ferguson riots were in 2014 and the orange Benito was elected to the white house in 2016. All those albums were critically acclaimed and deserved to be.

One must also understand that Michael Render Is as much a rapper as he is a political activist. And since it is impossible to separate the artist from the man, the music of RUN THE JEWELS cannot be analysed without understanding the positions that he defends, here is a quote from a speech he gave after the death of Georges Floyd which will allow you to understand him better:

“I am mad as hell. I woke up wanting to see the world burn down yesterday because I am tired to see black men die. […] And we watch it like murderporn over and over again.”

So given the current political worldwide climate, people were anxiously wating for a new RTJ album in 2020. And then the beginning of the year made this album even more desired. And then Georges Floyd died and the USA exploded. They took the decision to release “RTJ4” for free with the possibility of making a donation for the legal defences of those arrested during the protests. I give them mad respect for that bold gesture alone.

And then I listened to it.

This is the record of the year, pure and simple.

Rare are the musicians that manage to capture the global mood of their time to that extent, with enough power and energy to make their work an instant classic. From the top of my head, I would say THE CLASH, RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE and even BODY COUNT with their eponymous records, PUBLIC ENEMY with “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” or the DEAD KENNEDYS with “Fresh Fruits For Rotting Vegetables”.

El-P and his team once again reached another level in terms of production. All of the beats are beyond brutal, filled to the brim with heavy angry bass (“Ju$t”, “Never Look Back”). It’s dark and violent (“Waking In The Snow”) but never forgets to be extremely catchy (“Ooh La La”, “Goonies vs ET”). In a 2016 interview, the producer explained that he likes heavy music, including metal, and was influenced by it. And in this album I found traces of MINISTRY in the vicious fatalistic coldness of “Pulling The Pin” or in the saxophone from “A Few Words For The Firing Squad” which reminded me of “10/10”.

After each track, we are convinced that this time we will not be surprised, and yet because of all the experimentations, weird haunting sounds, it’s banger after banger for 40 minutes. Pardon my French but fuck if the beat change in the middle of “Holy Calamafuck” will make you swear, and don’t tell me that “The Ground Below” is not a pure rock’n’roll track with a killer riff. Musically, it’s a very powerful catalyst, a lightning rod for you anger that grabs you by the guts and doesn’t let go even after he’s done and for that alone, this record requires your attention.

An important part of modern rap is the guests. And again, this is the cream of the crop. The verse by 2CHAINZ (who also comes from Georgia) is excellent, with the perfect combination of egotrip, jock humor, bravado and swagger that make it memorable. The scratches by DJ PREMIER (legendary producer for NAS, Notorious BIG, Mos Def, Tupac and Snoop Dogg amon others) in “Ooh La La” are always a pleasure for old-school aficionados. On the “Walking In The Snow” chorus, Gangsta Boo (lady rapper from THREE SIX MAFIA) is impeccable, with just the right amound of anger. Josh Homme (QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE) with his guitar and voice make the ethereal side of “Pulling The Pin” even more disturbing and dissonant.

Pharell Williams’ chorus on “Ju$t” was one of my biggest surprises with the disillusioned “Look at all these slave masters, posing on your dollars.” (1) where he is supported by Zack De La Rocha (RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE) who appears to still be in his prime and lays out one of the best verse of the entire album where he shows that he is as angry and fierce as ever, going as far as to question the non-violent approach of Dr King (“How can we be the peace when the beast gonna reach for the worst?”).

But clearly, the best guest of the whole album is without a doubt blues legend Mavis Staple who just crushed everyone else of the chorus from “Pulling The Pin”. If you don’t get chills when she sings “There’s a grenade in my heart and the pin is in their palm”, you are dead inside and there is nothing we can do about that.

And once all of this is checked, comes the most important part : the lyrics. There again, RTJ4 just tears down most of the competition and stis at the very top of the game. Not a single verse is bas, it is an eleven round boxing match that will make you go through all of the possible emotions and reactions (mostly yelling “fuck” every ten seconds). Without every going on the easy path and by perfectly combining their complementary flows and styles, El-P and Killer Mike keep throwing punchline after punchline without weakness and just listing the best ones is a useless task and each track is infinitely quotable.

Whether it’s Killer Mike’s verse on “Walking In The Snow” with the chilling “Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper “I Can’t Breathe”” (2) and where the mood is pure anger, will to live and to exist in front of a machine build to break those who look like him. Or when El-P is getting worried about climate change: “Fuck y’all got, another planet on stash? Far from the fact of the flames of our trash?”, everything is talked about with talent.

The message of this record, through the “Yankee & The Brave” story, is one of revolution. Live free or die. And to pass that message, there is no better last track than “A Few Words For The Firing Squad (Radiation)”, a last scene that see our two heroes deliver two last intense verses just before getting in front of the firing squad. And then the record ends on the theme song for “Yankee & The Brave” which loops into the first track once again, as if this was all a vicious circle that we have to break.
“RTJ4” is a superb record, end of story. It will touch you, haunt you, make you laugh, cry, fill you with anger, calm you down and most importantly will give you enough ammo to destroy the system. Just like it is said in the introduction of the “Ooh La La” music video: one day the long fought battle between humanity and the forces of greed and division will end, and on that day, finally free, we will throw a motherfucking party”. In the meantime, “RTJ4” is the perfect soundtrack to guide you through the current chaos.

(1) Georges Washington (1 dollar bill), Thomas Jefferson (2 dollars bill), Andrew Jackson (20 dollar bill), Ulysses S. Grant (50 dollar bill) and Benjamin Franklin (100 dollar bill) all owned slaves.

(2) Written in reference to the death of Eric Gardner who was choked to death when being arrested by the police.

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