It’s taken some time to figure out how and when to get this blog active again since COVID-19 effectively killed the concert scene. With live concerts and thus concert reviews being an impossibility, the obvious move would have been to get back into writing album reviews. I’ve felt like album reviews have been getting played out though, as anyone can give a hot take on a new album the same day it drops, and still won’t be able to capture the long-term impact of the album. I usually save my album reviews for my end-of-the-year countdowns, and even then I’ve felt my opinions change sometimes on albums I’ve reviewed within the same year of it dropping. 2020 has been filled with incredible Hip-Hop albums to choose from, but rather than rush back to review every single one of them, I wanted to take a more macro approach and look at the artists’ body of work overall, and how the new album adds to it; and so to kick off my return to writing, I’ll start this series off by revisiting the discography of one of the most relevant groups in today’s music scene: Run The Jewels.
Run The Jewels is of course the duo consisting of Atlanta emcee and social activist Killer Mike, and Brooklyn emcee-producer El-P. This past June they released their fourth album, RTJ4, to critical acclaim for the way it captures the themes of protest and declaring war on injustice and discrimination, which have been prominent around the world in the year 2020. Before we get to the new album though, we’re going to go back and revisit Mike & El-P’s entire discography. They may have formed the group Run The Jewels in 2013, but to really appreciate where their music is coming from, we have to go back and look at their individual solo careers, which go back years before they linked up. This will be a journey through the years of music made by Killer Mike & El-P, and how they went on to become one of the greatest groups in modern Hip-Hop history.
1997-1998: Rawkus Records, Company Flow and Funcrusher Plus
We begin our journey by following El-P, who began his career as part of a group that had a similar format to Run The Jewels, but a different style and sound. Rather than a duo, Company Flow was a trio that consisted of El-P & Bigg Jus as the emcees sharing mic duties, El-P also handling the bulk of the production, and Mr. Len providing scratches on the turntables. After releasing a successful underground EP, they signed to Rawkus Records to release their debut album, Funcrusher Plus in 1997. Along with the Lyricist Lounge and Soundbombing series of compilation albums, Funcrusher Plus was one of Rawkus Records’ flagship albums that represented the organic approach to Hip-Hop that they stood for. Rawkus sought to bring back that vibe of the simple times when emcees were rhyming in cyphers in the park, doing it for the love of rap rather than the fame, and even in 2020, Funcrusher Plus takes you right back to that same vibe. This album is El-P at his rawest, as the beats are all boom-bap with a subtle futuristic sound to it, and the flow moves at a steady pace that makes you feel like you’re right there standing in a cypher with these guys.
In a time when Hip-Hop was starting to top the charts with more pop-oriented song structures, Company Flow had no rules, taking a free-flow approach and never restricting themselves to 16-bar verses or focusing on making catchy hooks. A lot of the songs feel like a battle or cypher format, although there are hints of El-P developing the in-depth, abstract storytelling he would be revered for later in his career, like the emotional “Last Good Sleep” where he raps about his abusive step-father. Company Flow had a unique style and sound that stood apart from the notable artists of the ’90s, and in 2020 serves as a snapshot in time, taking fans back to the Rawkus era where the underground still had well-curated talent without the oversaturation we experience today.
1999-2001: Def Jux, The Cold Vein, and Killer Mike’s Debut
Despite Funcrusher Plus’ underground success, El-P would spend the following years leaving Rawkus Records, going solo, and starting his own record label, Definitive Jux. Before he would get to release his own debut solo album, El-P would first produce another album for the Harlem duo Cannibal Ox, their 2001 debut The Cold Vein being one of the first releases on El-P’s newly formed Definitive Jux label. While El-P doesn’t rap much on the album, only having one featured verse and a few adlibs, it’s still to this day arguably one of his best produced albums. The production sounds like it could be the soundtrack to a Sci-Fi film, still sounding ultra futuristic in 2020, and each song on the album is its own space opera, ranging from three and a half minutes to over six. El-Poducto lived up to his name on this album, making it sound completely unique from anything to come before or after it, which makes it a fun album to revisit anytime, and you can get a sense of how his sound would continue to evolve over the years.
Meanwhile in Atlanta, Killer Mike would make his major recording debut in the biggest way possible for a relatively unknown ATLien: by featuring on an album by the biggest rap group to ever come out of the ATL, OutKast. Mike made a guest feature on the OutKast song “Snappin’ & Trappin” off their Stankonia album in 2000, and would also feature on their 2001 Grammy award-winning single “The Whole World.” Lowkey reaching millions of fans and gaining accolades through his OutKast features, Mike was also living up to his name as a microphone killer, bringing the right energy to these sweet 16’s and building anticipation for his own music that would come later.
2002: Fantastic Damage
After finalizing his split from Rawkus Records and Company Flow, and also taking the time to lay the groundwork to establish Definitive Jux as a record company, El-P finally got to release his debut solo album in 2002, Fantastic Damage. Producing the entire project on his own, El-P found a middle ground between the boom-bap cypher vibes of Funcrusher Plus and the futuristic space opera that was The Cold Vein. The album is lyrically dense, as El-P bludgeons the listener with his wordy, rapid-fire bars that command your full attention to completely digest. With the clunky, noise-heavy production combined with the often overlapping, distorted layers of vocals, Fantastic Damage feels like yet another Sci-Fi universe that El-P created to reflect on a post-9/11 New York City, and the lows humanity could potentially reach.
Going back to this album in 2020 takes effort, as the vocal delivery El-P uses throughout the project isn’t as clean or easily digestible as some of his later work. Fantastic Damage sounds like a lot of cluttered noise if you play it in the background, but taking the time to focus in on El-P’s quirky style of lyricism makes it a rewarding experience. You can also hear El-P developing his genius as a producer, with the way elements of certain beats flow from one track into the next; this being a technique he’d master by the time he formed RTJ. There’s a lot of attention to detail that goes into making an El-P album, from the production to the wordplay, and fans would have five years to unpack everything before we’d get a follow-up solo album from El-Producto.
2003: Enter Killer Mike, Monster
Building on the momentum he gained from his guest features with OutKast, Killer Mike continued to make high-profile appearances within the year surrounding the release of his debut album in 2003, Monster. He continued to work closely with Atlanta legends OutKast, appearing with them on the song “Poppin’ Tags” from Jay-Z’s Blueprint 2: The Gift & The Curse album, as well as a couple guest appearances on the highest selling Hip-Hop album of all-time, OutKast’s own double-disc Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (appearing again with Jay-Z on the song “Flip Flop Rock“). Continuing to kill his verses and go toe-to-toe with legends like Hov, Andre 3000 and Big Boi, plus featuring on one of the hottest street anthems that year with Bone Crusher’s “Never Scared,” Killer Mike was making a name for himself on features alone.
Completely separated from the dusty, rugged, New York underground scene that El-P had been making a name in, Killer Mike’s debut album Monster was released on the major label Columbia Records and brought the big noise Atlanta Hip-Hop was becoming known for, with loud, energetic anthems to bump in the cars and the clubs. OutKast would return the love by contributing verses and some production to the album, along with a feature from an up-and-coming T.I., and Killer Mike would shine with tales of hustling, comedy, and an easily digestible, blunt form of lyricism. While some might say Mike was living in the shadow of some of the star power around him, this album was still a solid intro piece that still has some classic joints worth revisiting, including his highest charting hit as a solo artist to date, “A.D.I.D.A.S.“
2004-2005: Independent Living
Despite barely peaking within the Billboard Top 10 and being well received by critics and fans, Monster failed to go platinum like Killer Mike’s frequent collaborators OutKast were doing on a regular basis. Perhaps Columbia had other expectations, as Mike’s second album was pushed back and eventually shelved, causing him to go independent and start his own record label, Grind Time Official. While the album Mike had recorded for Columbia, Ghetto Extraordinary, would eventually get released independently as a free mixtape years later, he presumably spent these years recording a completely new album to put out on his own, and establishing his own label to release it under. He’d also participate in Big Boi’s new group of underground southern emcees, Purple Ribbon All Stars, releasing two albums with the collective which included the hot single for its time, “Kryptonite (I’m On It).”
El-P in the meantime released an instrumental album called High Water with the Jazz band The Blue Series Continuum, while also producing Hip-Hop tracks for artists signed to his Def Jux label. Def Jux was becoming its own underground movement, putting out albums by Aesop Rock, Mr. Lif, Cage, and Murs. Most notably, El-Producto executive produced Murs & 9th Wonder’s classic 2004 album, Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition, and also produced a good amount of the beats on Cage’s 2005 album Hell’s Winter. This period of time was when El-P’s Def Jux was at its peak, and Killer Mike’s Grind Time Official was just getting started.
By 2006, Killer Mike and some of the members from Purple Ribbon All Stars had formed a new group, Grind Time Rap Gang, which included himself as well as fellow southern emcees SL Jones, Rock D The Legend, Bigg Slimm, Narrio, Gangsta Pill, and Da Bill Collector. GTRG made up most of the features on Killer Mike’s sophomore album, the double-disc I Pledge Allegiance To The Grind, which had themes of promoting independence and business ownership, the eternal grind that the working and poor class of America go through to make a living, and lashing out at the industry and media. While the production on this album wasn’t as polished as Monster, it had a very down-to-Earth, street-smart edge to it, appealing more to the underground and trap music scenes with fewer mainstream looks than the first album.
The gangsta raps over trap beats hasn’t necessarily aged well, and the references to Grind Time Official’s MySpace page date the album, but it did have glimpses of Killer Mike’s lyrical brilliance as he began developing into the politically-focused emcee he’s known as today. Much of the album is focused on the benefits of independence and owning your own music, as Mike proudly proclaims in an interlude he earns $7 to $9 off every album sold, as well as the hard work and risk it takes to be successful independently. Seasoned Hip-Hop heads have heard this story told in thousands of different ways, and you can tell when revisiting this album that Mike’s most compelling music was still ahead of him.
While Killer Mike was making his pledge to the independent grind, El-P was gearing up to release his own sophomore album independently, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead. The album arrived five years after his debut, Fantastic Damage, and you could make an argument for this being the best album to ever be released on the Definitive Jux label. El-P’s vocabulary on this album still bends minds to this day, and while Fantastic Damage was an intense bludgeoning of rhymes, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead plays a bit smoother once you’ve become used to El-P’s tongue-twisting delivery. The production sounds much larger in scale, with the album intro sonically taking you to space before bringing you back to Earth on a PCP-driven trip down a New York City subway.
Recorded during the height of President George W. Bush’s administration, El-P became much more politically-driven on this album than his previous work. Standout songs included “Dear Sirs,” where El-P dives into an intense rant about all the outlandish scenarios that would need to happen before he would ever join Bush’s war with Iraq, or “Habeas Corpses,” where he portrays a conflicted prison guard who’s just as much trapped in the toxic organizational culture around his job as his prisoners are literally trapped behind bars. This album is where El-P’s storytelling in his lyricism really took off, and his epic production skills only drew you in deeper into his story. Listening in 2020, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead still stands the test of time and maintains its status as an underground classic.
Killer Mike continued right where he left off, releasing the second installment of his I Pledge Allegiance To The Grind series a little more than a year and a half later. This album had a much more diverse sound to it, as he worked with 16 different producers over 17 tracks. He also enlisted a good range of guest collaborators, getting meaningful features from Ice Cube, Chamillionaire, 8Ball & MJG, as well as his usual GTRG crew. Mike rapped his ass off throughout this album, with a bit more focus on political and social commentary, as well as tales of the grind and good old fashioned braggadocio.
With 2008 being around the time autotune was starting to become an overused trend in Hip-Hop, causing a divide amongst heads, some of the hooks on this album use the technique subtly, in some cases sounding dated. Some of the guest features also date the album, as Shawty Lo and Chamillionaire are a couple names you could only associate with a couple years of relevance in the mid-2000s. Regardless, you can hear Mike’s lyricism and songwriting skills continue to grow, and his overall confidence as an emcee was becoming more prominent.
2009-2011: Grand Hustle, PL3DGE, and an Incredible El-P Verse
By the end of 2008, Killer Mike had decided to join forces with fellow ATLien T.I. by signing to his label, Grand Hustle. The two had emerged from the Atlanta underground around the same time, but T.I. was able to become more prominent as a solo artist and actor, earning his own accolades over the years, and was working on expanding the roster on his label. Killer Mike would make his previous album, I Pledge Allegiance To The Grind II, available for free download to build anticipation for his Grand Hustle debut, and would release PL3DGE in 2011. It was around the time of this release that Mike also temporarily changed his stage name to Mike Bigga to appeal to a more family-friendly audience, but quickly reverted back to Killer Mike to stay true to himself.
With each new addition in his Pledge series, Killer Mike sounded hungrier and sharper as an emcee, and PL3DGE only pushed that growth further. The album included sequels to some of his most enjoyed songs from his previous albums: “That’s Life II” where he doubles down on his attacks on leaders not doing enough to fight systematic racism America, and the uplifting, introspective “God In The Building II,” where he questions the ethics in drug dealing. The album of course has some bangers with Mike spitting braggadocio over trunk-rattling beats, but it more importantly sees Mike’s emergence as a political emcee, as he criticizes oppressive systems that include law enforcement, education, and religion. With much of the anger on this album focused around the 2009 murder of Oscar Grant, some of the sentiments Killer Mike delivers on these songs have become our reality in 2020, as police precincts have literally been burned down in protest against racism and irresponsible, negligent policing.
Meanwhile, El-P was staying busy during this time running Def Jux. Included in the label’s releases during this time was Cage’s Depart From Me (2009) album, which had a few beats produced by El-P, and Camu Tao’s posthumous solo debut King of Hearts (2010). After working to release the latter following Camu Tao’s passing, El-P decided to step down as Artistic Director of Def Jux so that he could focus on his own artistry. 2011 saw him produce some of the beats on Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire’s mixtape Lost in Translation, which of course included the posse cut “The Last Huzzah.” An argument can be made that El-P’s verse on the track is a contender for Verse of the Year, maybe even a Top-10 Verse of the Decade, as it still holds up today as an epic mindfuck.
2012(A): R.A.P. Music
2011 is when Killer Mike and El-P first crossed paths. El-P had been slowly working on putting together his third solo album and had finally been able to gain the freedom and flexibility to focus on it, but was somehow convinced to take on producing an entire album for Killer Mike while still working on his own project. This led to the release of R.A.P. Music in May of 2012, Killer Mike’s fifth album, and his first that would have the sound provided entirely by one producer. The collaboration between the clunky, industrial, New York sound El-P was known for and the Southern soul Killer Mike brought to the table looked weird on paper at first, but the result ended up being a masterpiece.
While Killer Mike was no longer working with T.I.’s Grand Hustle label, there was no love lost, as T.I. appeared along with Bun B to feature on the lead single “Big Beast,” and El-P also had a guest verse to mark their unofficial first Run The Jewels track on “Butane (Champions Anthem).” These were the only guest features with verses on the album, as Mike really focused in on his songwriting and carried the bulk of the vocals by himself. Both Killer Mike and El-P pulled out their entire bag of tricks for this album, as El-Producto laced Mike with a diverse yet cohesive sound that drew inspiration from Ice Cube, UGK, and Run-DMC among others, which brought out just about every side of Mike’s personality throughout the album. We got the confident emcee straight spitting on “Go!,” the imaginative storyteller on “JoJo’s Chillin,” the political activist attacking corrupt police officers on “Don’t Die,” and the soulful, humbled emcee appreciating the culture on the album’s closer, “R.A.P. Music.” You can feel the chemistry Mike & El-P had on this album, as the collaboration brought out the best in Killer Mike and made this his greatest, most respected solo album to date.
2012(B): Cancer 4 Cure
Just one week after Killer Mike dropped R.A.P. Music, El-P released the solo album he had been working on simultaneously, Cancer 4 Cure. While many fans still swear by Fantastic Damage or I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead as his best work, Cancer 4 Cure has to be the most polished version of El-P’s sound. The album feels concise and focused, yet still maintains that otherworldly vibe that El-P is known for. El-P’s lyricism is as sharp as ever on this album, but a lot of the appeal comes from the synergy he’s able to create between the raps and the production, tying the entire project together as one cohesive, prolonged acid trip. With guest features from Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire, Danny Brown, Despot, Killer Mike, and Paul Banks, El-P is able to take all these moving pieces and bring them all together to play their part perfectly.
Revisiting all of these albums back to back sheds light on how El-P revisits concepts from his previous work on this album, and improves on them. Going back to Company Flow, El-P recycles elements of “Lune TNS” for the second verse of “Drones Over BKLYN,” making the beat hit you with a punch every time he uses a curse word (doubling as a censor for the clean version). He also tackles domestic violence yet again, but approaches from a completely different angle on “For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mums The Word),” putting incredible storytelling on display. Throughout the album El-P showcases new levels of brilliance when it comes to production and songwriting, unapologetically staying true to his own artform and remaining unique from any other Hip-Hop artist out at the time. Both R.A.P. Music and Cancer 4 Cure were among the best rap albums of 2012, and they still hold up today as underground classics from the 2010’s.
2013: Run The Jewels
Like Dwayne Wade & LeBron James were doing in the NBA during these years, Killer Mike & El-P were a united force ready to rack up the wins. Following R.A.P. Music and Cancer 4 Cure, El-P was locked into his zone as a producer, and Killer Mike was coming off his most powerful album yet. The experiment of their collaboration was a success, and so they decided to make another album together, this time with both of them rapping.
The album was called Run The Jewels, named after an LL Cool J lyric, and it was primarily promoted as available for free download. Fans who downloaded the album back then might remember the artist name on the files were Killer Mike & El-P rather than Run The Jewels, as this was still very much an experiment that wasn’t a guaranteed hit, and there was no telling if they would remain a group going forward. The album ended up being a massive underground hit however, as it proved viable the business model of giving the music away for free while earning their dollars by touring the world with the most energetic concerts and the flyest merch.
Clocking in at just over half an hour over ten tracks, the first RTJ album was simply two emcees having fun spitting raw raps over dope beats. El-Producto hooked up the beats to perfection and made the album sound like one prolonged stream of consciousness, each track flowing smoothly into the next, while also sounding unlike any other artist out at the time. Lyrically, Mike and El-P just killed every verse, spitting raw braggadocio and making their case as the newest contender for Hip-Hop’s tag-team champs. They didn’t get too political or emotional on this album, as it was meant to be a one-off experiment for kicks, but the synergy they had as a duo was undeniable. It’s a rarity in Hip-Hop to see two emcees emerge as a duo this late in their careers, working this well together, and seeing Run The Jewels come out the way they did made this a special moment in time.
2014-2015: Run The Jewels 2
With not a care in the world about chart positions, the first Run The Jewels album was a huge success for the way it impacted the culture and grew an organic fan base; RTJ was now officially a group. They had one of the most energetic concerts on tour, the flyest merch on sale, and had one of the coolest logos/hand symbols to unify the fans with. The anticipation was high for their follow-up album, as they had an elaborate rollout with some insane pre-order bundles to go with the free download, ranging from a standard $100 vinyl/CD/t-shirt/poster bundle to $100,000.00 for the same plus having Mike & El-P fly to your town and tactfully humiliate your bully. The crazy pre-order bundles were mostly for jokes, but one of these would actually materialize a year later as the Meow The Jewels album, as a fan-organized crowd funding initiative allowed for the purchase of the $40K pre-order bundle that involved Mike & El-P remixing the album using cat noises as their samples (the proceeds all went to charity for this ridiculous endeavor). As for the album itself, Run The Jewels absolutely nailed their mark with the 2014 release of RTJ2, intensifying the energy of the first album and ultimately giving fans everything expected and more.
Not only was the energy on RTJ2 cranked up, but Killer Mike & El-P also diversified their lyrical approach, bringing more of the same braggadocio on most tracks while also using others to hit on political issues and be more comedic. With the murder of Michael Brown and the subsequent protests in Ferguson causing America to put yet another critical eye on the use of force in policing, songs like “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)” and “Early” effectively captured the anger, sadness and pain felt by many, while bringing motivation to the fight against social injustice and corruption in the judicial and law enforcement system. Other songs like “All Due Respect” and “Love Again (Akinyele Back)” balanced things out as more raunchy, comedic songs, the latter being a sexually aggressive track that borders on being a corny strip club song, but brilliantly evens the playing field by adding the female perspective with Gangsta Boo’s guest verse. Overall, this album was executed to perfection and still stands as one of the best Hip-Hop albums of the decade.
2016-2017: Run The Jewels 3
RTJ2 was an even bigger success than Run The Jewels’ first album, as they spent the next two years hitting bigger venues on tour and growing their brand. They also branched out to feature on other artists’ songs during this time, including Big Boi & Phantogram’s “Born To Shine,” and most notably on DJ Shadow’s “Nobody Speak,” which went on to be featured in plenty of film and TV media. Once again, anticipation was high for another RTJ album, and while RTJ3 was slated for a January 2017 release, Mike & El-P leaked the free digital download to fans early, dropping on Christmas Day 2016.
RTJ3 was Run The Jewels’ biggest sounding album yet, and remains their longest album to date. The longer length allowed for Mike & El-P to expand on all aspects of their game; there was more chaos, more braggadocios claims as Hip-Hop’s dopest duo, and also more emotional, politically-focused songs combating racism and social injustice. The latter felt more important than ever, as this was the beginning of Donald Trump’s first (and hopefully last) term as President. With the pistol-and-fist logo now made golden on the album cover, RTJ3 was Mike & El-P at the most confident they had been in their entire careers, delivering a ton of that raw dopeness they had become known for while continuing to diversify.
El-P sonically made this another Sci-Fi adventure with his production, each song again flowing smoothly into the next, and lyrically him and Killer Mike kept each other sharp throughout the project. Songs like “Don’t Get Captured” and “Thieves! (Screamed The Ghost)” took creative approaches to criticizing systematic racism, abusers of power, and the consequences of it, while others like “Call Ticketron” and “Panther Like A Panther (Miracle Mix)” saw Mike & El-P at their braggadocios best. This album only elevated their star power and brought in more accolades, including their first gold plaque for the single “Legend Has It” (that is, achieving gold-certified sales for music that’s primarily released as a free download).
2018-2019: Running The World
Following the release of RTJ3, Run The Jewels went on their Run The World Tour, hitting larger venues and massive music festivals all around the world with their newly released set of mosh-pit starters, and they began to dominate with their marketing. On top of expanding their merchandise to include their own line of craft beer, Killer Mike in particular made himself and the RTJ brand more visible to the public eye by starring in his own Netflix show, Trigger Warning, while also remaining involved in supporting Bernie Sanders’ campaign for President, as well as his local politicians in Georgia. His political efforts would later lead to him winning Billboard Music’s first ever Change Maker Award in 2020.
On the music front, Run The Jewels had new songs featured in video games like FIFA 18, and Hollywood blockbusters including Baby Driver and Venom, the latter having the song “Let’s Go (The Royal We)” featured during the end credits. They also featured on other artists’ songs, including Bun B’s “Myself” off of his Return of the Trill album, Danny Brown’s “3 Tearz,” and an El-P remix of Lorde’s “Supercut” after joining her on her Melodrama World Tour. Run The Jewels had their own unique and easily identifiable sound now, and their subtle one-off tracks and features with other artists continued to build anticipation for RTJ4. Mike and El-P couldn’t miss, with not one wack verse rapped or one wack beat made, and so the fans stayed hungry for their fourth album together, which eventually arrived in 2020.
2020: Run The Jewels 4
2020 is the year the world caught up to Run The Jewels’ frame of mind, as the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others sparked the biggest protests against social injustice, systematic racism, and incompetent policing worldwide. The sad truth is that defunded education, for-profit prisons, and many, many more systemic problems have been part of America for years, and much of the resulting anger on the RTJ4 album was recorded before anyone could predict the magnitude of the backlash we’d see in 2020. For their fourth album as a duo, Killer Mike & El-P pulled back on a lot of the comedy and the Sci-Fi quirkiness of the previous three albums, using a more traditional approach to sampling in their production and bringing a more aggressive tone overall. While the first three albums felt like an adventurous fantasy through the minds of Mike & El-P, RTJ4 feels like it was designed for planet Earth in 2020, the tone fitting the year perfectly.
While RTJ3 ended with the troops moving in on the album closer “A Report To The Shareholders/Kill Your Masters,” pressing play on RTJ4 immediately makes you feel like you’re at a peaceful protest with militarized police and radical white-power terrorists escalating the violence, as the album opens with the intense “Yankee And The Brave (Ep. 4).” Just as they swoop in to fight off the bullies, Killer Mike & El-P attempt to bring more positive energy with some head-nodding beats and party vibes despite the troubling war with oppression looming overhead. Track 2 and the lead single “Ooh LA LA” has more traditional boom-bap production that’s been uncommon in Run The Jewel’s previous albums, but they pull it off with style, expertly flipping a sample from Gang Starr’s 1992 single “DWYCK” for the hook and bringing in DJ Premier for some scratches as an added touch. The very next song, “Out of Sight,” continues the golden-age Hip-Hop influence, as El-P flips the same samples used for The D.O.C.’s 1989 hit “It’s Funky Enough” in a new way to deliver another certified mosh pit starter that fits right in with RTJ’s classic braggadocios songs.
The next couple tracks continue to have the same high energy, as Mike & El-P rip through their fire-hot verses over a different style of production for El-P that sees him combining traditional boom-bap with his own noisy, chaotic, industrial sound. The album takes a turn with a cold dose of reality by the time you hit the halfway point, “Walking In The Snow.” The song sees El-P criticizing Christians who use their religion as a tool for oppression, followed by Killer Mike breaking down systematic racism from the school-to-prison pipeline, to the cycle of poverty, to the normalization of minorities being killed by police. Killer Mike’s lines detailing Eric Garner’s death in particular struck a cord with the masses, as months after he recorded the verse, George Floyd would be killed the exact same way, and this album would be released as the protests started spreading across the world.
The criticism of oppressive systems in America continues on the next song, “JU$T,” as Run The Jewels are joined by Zach De La Rocha and Pharrell Williams to deconstruct the ties between capitalism, poverty, and modern-day slavery. The song’s chorus highlights the fact that America still worships slave owners by printing their faces on their currency, an unapologetic slap in the face to show that we’re still far away from achieving true equality and respect. While these songs represent anger with America’s history and current climate, Run The Jewels do remain hopeful, following up “JU$T” with the obviously forward-looking “Never Look Back,” and giving fans one last upbeat, braggadocios rap-off with “The Ground Below.”
To close out the album, Run The Jewels give a heartfelt call for change with the moody “Pulling The Pin,” followed by the epic, climactic outro “A Few Words For The Firing Squad (Radiation)” that feels eerily similar to El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure outro “$4 Vic/Nothing But You+Me (FTL).” Between these two final songs, Mike & El-P leave fans with the message that they’re here to push society forward in a positive way and provide a voice for the voiceless, despite fearing the violence the oppressors might force upon them for their message. It’s a final note that caps off their most politically charged album to date, followed by a closing “Yankee and the Brave” theme song that sounds like it was made for an old school western TV show about two legendary outlaws.
If RTJ4 does in fact end up being Run The Jewels’ final album, it effectively closes a chapter in Killer Mike & El-P’s careers that saw tremendous growth and evolution over an eight-year span. Run The Jewels went from being two emcees who simply love rapping about being dope to a platform that tackles oppression, social injustice, and corruption, all over raging beats. Each of the four RTJ albums are classics in their own way, but RTJ4 captures the right amount of rage and criticism called for in 2020, and delivers it in a time when society both needs and wants to hear it. The album has similar political narratives to their previous releases, and the same attention to detail that makes it a smooth listen from beginning to end, but just happens to be Run The Jewels’ most timely release. This discography can easily go up against some of the greatest groups in Hip-Hop history, as Killer Mike & El-P have yet to drop a dud when they’re united as Run The Jewels, and have put out some of the best music of their careers during this run.
Check out our playlist of all the times we’ve seen Run The Jewels perform live over the years!
Which artists’ discography should we revisit next? Let us know in the comments below or on social media!
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