When Killer Mike and El-P decided to put their solo careers on hiatus for each other, I didn’t imagine them going on a seven-year-run that dramatically eclipsed anything they had put out before. Killer Mike was a gatekeeper for the old-Atlanta whose visibility may have otherwise peaked in the early 2000s with a handful of OutKast collaborations. Now he’s Bernie Sanders’ favorite rapper with his own Netflix show. El-P was an underground beat-wizard, honing his craft as part of Company Flow and coming into his own as a rapper in the 2000s. Now he’s musical-mastermind of a duo who sit next to Calvin Harris on the Coachella poster. What might have seemed like a smart partnership at first turned into the epitome of how to pull off a late-career renaissance, how to somehow penetrate the mainstream without sacrificing any of your values. All they needed was a partner to fill in the gaps.
It doesn’t make the most sense on paper, but you don’t need to listen long to see what these two bring out in each other. Every new Run the Jewels release is a continuation of their core idea. Yes, it gets to a point where you know what to expect from most Run the Jewels songs, but it’s a formula they’ve somehow kept fresh across a four-album run. El-P’s production has never accidentally become stale, even though it’s probably easy to hit a lull when you chase the same hardcore, ring-the-alarms chaos with every song. Killer Mike will never phone in a verse, delivering each word like it’s an urgent, fleshed-out mantra you should know better than to ignore. And while El-P’s raps can lean a little heavy on tough-guy bravado and internal rhyme schemes, he rarely gives less than his all. RTJ4 is exactly what you’d expect from two guys who have been down this road three times before without ever missing the mark. They see no need to step out of their comfort zone but have the ear and openness to adjust to their surroundings.
While RTJ4 is hardly a side-step, it comes at the most urgent time it possible could have (for obvious reasons). It was released just four days after Killer Mike gave a gut-wrenching speech in front of Atlanta protesters, but the timing of the two events had nothing to do with each other. The privileged kid in me wanted to write that an album full of songs directly referencing police brutality and systematic racism “foresaw” the last week of events. But there’s nothing about the matters of this week that weren’t pressing when the songs were written. Or a year ago. Or when these two started their careers.
While the long-overdue backlash is more visible now than ever, Killer Mike has seen it all before. He’s wary that change must be hard-earned, and even then, it isn’t promised. He’ll be the first to tell you about the difference between steps towards dismantling a system and a black square on Instagram. The biggest gut-punch on RTJ4 comes during Killer Mike’s verse on “walking in the show”. Rapping about getting choked out by a cop, his voice goes from a shriek to whisper: “I can’t breathe.” The fact that you’d think it was about George Floyd until you realize that it must’ve been written about Eric Garner is chilling. It’s a line that makes you feel numb and overcome, but Killer Mike isn’t even slightly surprised when he addresses us directly right after. “And you sit on your house on the couch and watch it on TV / The most you give is a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy.”
He holds us all accountable yet delivers lines with like with absolutely no scorn. In fact, it almost reads as pity. We’ve been robbed of our empathy, and now we have apathy. These astute observations are all over RTJ4, courtesy of both Killer Mike and El-P. “ooh la la” might be the most quintessential Run the Jewels song on here, saluting this past with a Gang Starr flip. Meanwhile, El-P reminds you that, to the status quo, “your suffering is scrumptious”, and Mike retorts by pulling his penis out and pissing on their shoes in public. “holy calamafuck” zeroes in on this outlandish braggadocio over a well-honed dancehall sample. “JU$T” has one of the most explosive hooks they’ve ever delivered: “Look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar.” It’s a masterclass in having fun in a world where there isn’t much fun to be had, feeding off each other’s energy without forgetting about everything at stake.
As much as Run the Jewels feel like two passionate dudes acting on impulse, RTJ4 comes with a healthy dose of scene-setting. Opening with “yankee and the brave (ep. 4)”, Mike and El-P cosplay as the two rugged-rebel-rousing leads on a fictional TV show. It’s the type of opening scene designed to suck you in with its sudden high-stakes, making you think, “what did I miss?” Mike is at a fork-in-the-road, choosing between death and the hands of cops or his gun. “It ain’t suicide,” he insists, but to him, the choice is easy. “I can’t let the pigs kill me, I got too much pride,” he concedes, but El-P isn’t having it. “Get your ass in the ride,” he barks, reminding Mike that he couldn’t stomach his “rotten demise” and reminding him that “you still owe me for them Nikes, you do not get to just die.”
It’s a healthy dose of humor in a heavy-handed situation, a slap from reality to cut through an escapist vendetta-rampage. Yet when the album ends with Mike screaming “fuck you too!” to the firing squad before dying, the Yankee and the Brave TV theme emerges from the rubble. Run the Jewels have always had a taste for action-movie hyperbole, but as they’ve powered through their careers, the lines between slapstick and real have almost ceased to exist.