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Opinion | Powerful rap from hip-hop’s prescient duo

Run the Jewels’ new album is so relevant now that it seems eerie. RTJ4 takes on the racial tensions that are raging in the US and elsewhere

Run the Jewels performing at Finsbury Park, London, on 30 June 2018.
Run the Jewels performing at Finsbury Park, London, on 30 June 2018. (Photo: Getty Images)

On 3 June, Run the Jewels (RTJ), the acclaimed American hip hop duo, released their fourth album, RTJ4. The album was originally scheduled for release a few days later but the duo decided to put it out early. RTJ4’s prescience seems eerie. It dropped soon after protests broke out across the US and several other places in the world against the police brutality that took the life of George Floyd, an African-American man, in late May. Video footage of police violence against Floyd had gone viral and sparked off angry protests that have been raging against continuing racism in the US, in particular, but also elsewhere.

RTJ comprises two musicians who have had successful solo careers as rappers and producers and have been collaborating since 2013, when their first album was released. The duo comprises Killer Mike (Michael Santiago Render) from Atlanta and El-P (Jaime Maline) from New York City. Although the album was recorded before the incident that led to Floyd’s death, one track on RTJ4, Walking In The Snow, seems particularly prescient. It’s an indictment of state violence and society’s apparent indifference towards continuing acts of racism. On it, Killer Mike sings: Every day on the evening news, they feed you fear for free/ And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me/ And till 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.

Floyd’s death has led to an upsurge in activism by musicians. Most recently, the blues guitarist and singer Gary Clark Jr collaborated with the hip hop band The Roots to do a remix of his outstanding 2019 song, This Land, which is about being a black American and reclaiming his rights. The remixed version, with The Roots’ Black Thought (Tariq Trotter) chipping in with vocals, is a fiery rendition of the original. Another remarkable new song is by a 16-year-old Albuquerque-based singer, Chloë Nixon, whose song is titled I Can’t Breathe, and is dedicated to Floyd and other victims of police brutality.

For RTJ, though, activism has been a part of their music from the beginning. Mike and El-P are not wet-behind-the-ears rappers. They are both in their mid-40s. Their songs, especially the lyrics, aren’t self-obsessed rants, as you may find in the music of many among the younger breed of rappers. Neither are they prone to egregious and often degrading references to sex and women, like many new generation rappers.

The duo has made albums that quite often deal with social issues. But they are never boring. Nor are they preachy. Their first album, RTJ, an aggressive, punchy set of tracks with lyrics about social issues such as police violence, inequality and injustice, blends just the right amount of bravado and humour that could make it appealing to both—hard-core hip hop fans as well as curious newbies.

Things only got better. On their second album, RTJ2 (2014), El-P who, besides rapping, lays the beats and samples, deployed varied genres, including techno and punk, to create what has become the duo’s signature sound. Combined with Mike’s robust rapping, it’s a winning trademark. In Early, one of the tracks on the second album, you can hear their continuing concerns about police oppression: And I apologize if it seems like I got out of line, sir ’Cause I respect the badge and the gun/ And I pray today ain’t the day that you drag me away/ Right in front of my beautiful son/ And he still put my hands in cuffs, put me in the truck/ When my woman screamed, said “shut up"/ Witness with the camera phone on/ Saw the copper pull a gun and put it on my gorgeous queen.

But it is with RTJ4 that the duo seems to have excelled at what it does. Perhaps it is the album’s timeliness. But even otherwise, if you consider the sonic landscape of the album, the lyrics and the collaborators enlisted by the duo, it is an album that begs to be put on repeat. It has songs on which guest musicians as diverse as rappers 2 Chainz and Pharrell Williams, Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha, Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, and even the vocals of R&B and gospel singer Mavis Staples, feature. Homme and Staples are both on the track Pulling The Pin, a critique of capitalism, on which Staples sings on a chorus verse: Static in my mind/ Like sanity on borrowed time/ Like right and wrong can’t be defined/ There’s a grenade in my heart and the pin is in their palm/ There’s a grenade/ There’s a grenade/ A grenade in my heart.

A great many of RTJ’s lyrics are about the schism between police and the African-American community. Some of that is because of Mike’s own experience of growing up in Atlanta. In fact, his father was a policeman who quit and reportedly forbade his children from joining the force. But a lot of the songs are also about the duo’s anger against a society where the nexus between the rich and powerful dominates. El-P brings an element of apocalyptic destruction and doom to his rapping but, more importantly, it is his brilliance as a composer, producer and record label owner (his label, Definitive Jux, has been a driving force for underground hip hop) that is at the core of the excellent complementarity between him and Mike.

RTJ’s albums have always been relevant and reflective of what is happening around us—but none more than their latest offering.


Five tracks by Run the Jewels to bookend this week

1. ‘Walking In The Snow’ from ‘RTJ4’

2. ‘Pulling The Pin’ (featuring Mavis Staples & Josh Homme) from ‘RTJ4’

3. ‘JU$T’ (featuring Pharrell Williams & Zack De La Rocha) from ‘RTJ4’

4. ‘Oh My Darling Don’t Cry’ from ‘RTJ2’

5. ‘Early’ from ‘RTJ2’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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