“Either way, when you come to Run The Jewels 4 you’ll find Killer Mike and El-P at their best. Forever vivacious. Forever captivating. Unfortunately, forever relevant.”
WORDS BY TOBI OSHILAJA
If you’re looking for music to simmer in the hot pan of frustration that’s taken over the world right now, then I have good news: Run The Jewels 4 is out. The fourth installment of Killer Mike and El-P’s unruly series is full of middle fingers to the powers the be and the powers that don’t. Like their previous entries into the rap-sphere Run The Jewels 4 is a sinuous blend of rebellious raps, rambunctious beats and raucous one liners, this time boasting more finesse and label induced polish.
Wasting no time at all we’re introduced to a new and more fitting moniker for the devious duo, yankee and the brave (ep.4) opens with an announcement familiar to RTJ fans, Killer Mike is back with the heat ‘And I put that on Osama and my motherfuckin’ mama // I’ma terrorize the actors playing like they want some drama’. Newcomers buckle up because this guy just swore on the grave of the most notorious terrorist in living memory that he’s coming for all the keyboard warriors out there. This is the kind of unforgiving declaration that Killer Mike is bursting at the seams with, coming from a man who addressed protestors at a press conference in the Atlanta City Police Department. While yankee and the brave refers to Mike and El-P’s respective home baseball teams, I see it as the perfect reminder of the unlikely origins of the group.
What started as a one off collaboration for Adult Swim (yes the home of Rick and Morty and The Boondocks) quickly became living proof that Hip-Hop is not exclusively a young man, or woman’s, game. As solo artists, both members of Run The Jewels have brushed shoulders with some of the biggest names in underground and mainstream Hip-Hop. With his eclectic production and technically astounding rap ability, El-P had been pulling the strings in the underground scene for at least a decade before RTJ. Whereas Killer Mike was known to those with an eye on the scene in the south as the leader of the second generation of the Dungeon Family, a southern rap collective that produced the likes of Outkast, Cee Lo Green and Future. Yet no one predicted the sparks these two rocks of the industry would create.
Nothing proves this more than the second single from the album. Ooh La La showcases El-P at his sly and mischievous best, only he could feature the legend DJ Premier on a track and not enlist his help on production. What makes it even better are the signature record scratches that we expect on a Preemo track near the end of the song. Ooh La La, from the boom bap production to the Wu-Tang references, (I nearly lost it at Mike’s flow when he channels his inner ODB) goes a long way to explain who Run The Jewels are and why they’re currently one of the best acts in such a saturated industry. They carry the souls of legendary rappers they looked up to when they were coming up like Tupac, Biggie and Nas. But they do it over futuristic beats and anarchistic rhymes. So much of this is down to El-P. His production stands out in today’s flood of 808 infused trap music but his verbose verses are a perfect foil to Killer Mike’s indignant southern drawl.
In previous years you could have labelled Run The Jewels as intentionally inflammatory. You may have described their nonchalant disregard for authority as reflective of the most oppressed groups in American society. You would have been right then but now, with Black Lives Matter protests at the most riotous they have ever been, you’re more than spot on. Just listen to walking in the snow and JU$T back to back for goodness sake. The former is a track so descriptive of the anxieties of black men in America that it could have been written immediately after Killer Mike watched the video of George Floyd being choked to death. BUT NO. The song was written before that and specifically refers to the tragic last words of Eric Garner. That was 2014. This is now. Let me not mince my words, in fact hear from the man himself because I strongly believe this is Killer Mike’s best and most important verse to date.
“And every day on evening news they feed you fear for free
And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me
And ’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe”
And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV
The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy”
It’s truly haunting when Mike whispers “I can’t breathe” because…actually I even don’t even need to spell out why. The track speaks for itself. JU$T is slightly more subtle in it’s chorus that has an interesting thesis.
“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)”
If you’ll allow me to put my GCSE English hat on for a second. In comparing the methods of mastering economics, academics and Instagram, Pharrell Williams reveals who the ‘slaves’ are in each of these scenarios. Those in squalor, students (Killer Mike has been preaching about the whitewashed curriculum for years now) and mindless social media scrollers. The intention behind using ‘Mastered’ and ‘Slave’ becomes glaringly apparent with the closing argument. As if to rub it in the faces of every African American, the medium of exchange that they use everyday reminds them of 400 years of bondage. Bondage that was perpetuated by the very faces on the dollar bill. Looking at this even deeper, I’m tempted to read Pharrell’s final line as a dig at the foundations of ‘the land of the free’. How does one become a master of money? Slavery.
I could write a dissertation on how Run The Jewels encapsulate generational vexation at systematic oppression. Instead I’ll go with the more practical option of listening to their whole discography back to front. Either way, when you come to Run The Jewels 4 you’ll find Killer Mike and El-P at their best. Forever vivacious. Forever captivating. Unfortunately, forever relevant.
Favourite songs from RTJ4:
Yankee and the brave (ep.4), ooh la la, holy calamafuck, walking in the snow, JU$T, never look back, a few words for the firing squad (radiation)
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