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Review: Rage, yes, and empathy too on Run the Jewels’ cathartic new album

Run the Jewels
Killer Mike, left, and El-P of Run the Jewels. The palpable anger coursing through “RTJ4" feels as cleansing as an acid bath.
(Timothy Saccenti)

Run the Jewels was supposed to be on the road right now with Rage Against the Machine — two of music’s most politically engaged groups barnstorming the country in the run-up to a presidential election that feels more consequential with every passing day.

Alas, the tour was delayed until 2021 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet America’s other emergency sped up Run the Jewels’ plans: On Wednesday, amid nationwide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, El-P and Killer Mike announced they were releasing their new album two days early.

“F— it, why wait,” the rappers wrote in a straightforward statement. “The world is infested ... so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all.”

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The duo’s fourth LP since debuting in 2013, “RTJ4” delivers on its promise of timeliness with lyrics about somebody texting “Stay safe” (as 2 Chainz puts it in a guest verse in “Out of Sight”) and about the caught-on-tape police brutality that Killer Mike vividly describes in “Walking in the Snow.”

“You so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe,’” he raps, “And you sit there in house on couch and watch it on TV / The most you give is a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy.”

Then again, when in the past decade would those lines not have seemed timely? By saying “I can’t breathe” in a song recorded months ago, Killer Mike appears somehow to have anticipated one of Floyd’s final sentences; he’s also quoting Eric Garner, who died in similarly outrageous circumstances in New York in 2014.

Run the Jewels’ music is all about the collision of then and now. The bleak but muscular production, much of it by El-P (with help from Little Shalimar and Wilder Zoby), layers squelching synths over fractured beats in a way that never quite allows you to decide what was programmed and what was played by hand.

Terrace Martin’s “Pig Feet” was recorded in the last week and features Kamasi Washington, Denzel Curry, G Perico and Daylyt.

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Yet the men rap in the kind of crisp, booming cadences that have all but disappeared from hip-hop in the age of Drake and his countless sing-rapping inheritors.

Killer Mike and El-P, both in their mid-40s, come by their old-school flows honestly: Each was active for years before they formed Run the Jewels — El-P as part of New York’s Company Flow and as a solo artist running his own indie label, Definitive Jux; Killer Mike as a member of Atlanta’s Dungeon Family collective who scored a hit in 2001 with his cameo on OutKast’s “The Whole World.”

Their vintage references further reflect their age: Gang Starr and Ol’ Dirty Bastard in “Ooh La La,” Public Enemy in “Out of Sight.” A Gang of Four sample drives “The Ground Below,” while “Pulling the Pin” has a chorus sung by 80-year-old Mavis Staples. At a moment when rap is filled with teenagers vying for supremacy on TikTok, Run the Jewels proudly illuminates a more grown-up point of view.

“Not a holy man, but I’m moral in my perverseness,” Killer Mike says in “The Ground Below,” before finishing the couplet with a remarkable demonstration of his deep-seated humanism: “So I support the sex workers unionizing their services.”

Lyrically, the two seek to lay out how systems put in place yesterday — from redlining to mandatory sentencing to imbalanced access to healthcare — helped create the injustices we see today. (Like Run the Jewels’ earlier albums, “RTJ4” is available to download for free from the duo’s website, though it has already encouraged more than $100,000 in pay-what-you-want donations to the National Lawyers Guild’s Mass Defense Program.)

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Yet the result is hardly dry or academic: The palpable anger coursing through tracks like “Yankee and the Brave” and “JU$T” — the latter featuring Pharrell Williams and Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha — feels as cleansing as an acid bath.

And fury isn’t the only sensation the group articulates on its most emotionally complex album so far. In “Goonies vs. E.T.,” El-P raps about the pressures city life can exert on a romance; an additional track with an unprintable title has Killer Mike pondering the residual effects of casual violence: “I still can’t seem to escape the panic / PTSD, streets did the damage.”

The vulnerability in that line calls to mind Killer Mike’s recent speech at a news conference alongside Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, in which he told demonstrators that he understood their rage over Floyd’s death yet tearfully urged them “not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy.”

His appeal went viral online even as some condemned it as an accommodationist’s message. That Mike himself seemed torn was what gave him the air of a true leader.


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