This actually was an album I got to talk about a little bit before the onset of Criterion Month, since I gave it a Little Pick shout-out the week after it was released. However, RTJ4 is such an earth-shatteringly awesome album that I feel the need to give it a little more love. When the album was first released a week after the George Floyd killing, it felt like the perfect soundtrack to the summer’s protests against racism and police brutality. While Run The Jewels’ political commentary is one of the more potent aspects of their work here, there’s plenty else to enjoy considering this might be the album I’ve come back to the most this summer.
This proclivity to keep coming back to RTJ4 is a bit of a rarity, considering that even my favorite hip-hop albums tend to contain at least some filler that makes me hesitant to repeated listens. Not the case here. Despite having the same bone-crushing beats and relentlessly militant rhymes of previous Run The Jewels releases, somehow this album feels even more immediate and deliciously listenable. Maybe you could chalk it up to the times we’re living in, but I’d also like to chalk it up to a certain level of refinement that El-P and Killer Mike have honed in collaborating over the past decade, not to mention their work before that.
The first five tracks on RTJ4 just seem to keep topping themselves in terms of how sublimely devastating they are to your eardrums. Mind you, these aren’t even any of the more overtly political songs on the album and are more the kinds of odes to the underdog RTJ have mastered, though El-P’s production has gotten better and better with each release. Then when you get a wallop of musical protest like “Walking In The Snow”, it’s game over, man. I could name so many rhymes in this song that hit the nail on the head about everything that’s wrong with everything right now, but I won’t. Still, god damn, that motherfucker’s cold.
There’s also some great collaborations here despite the fact that Run The Jewels has mostly been defined by being the work of one of the tightest duos around. Another track that defines the album’s more somber second half is “JU$T”, which sees Pharrell asking you to “look at all these slavemasters posin’ on your dollar”, while Zach de la Rocha turns in another surprisingly great verse. Then there’s “Pulling The Pin”, a song that miraculously brings together Mavis Staples and Josh Homme without sounding like a mismatched mess, and in fact, is weirdly emotionally affecting.
Honestly, this review feels like it could easily devolve into me explaining how each song is awesome in a different way (I didn’t even get to the unexpected sampling of Gang of Four in “The Ground Below”). So I’ll stop short of that, but still reiterate that this is an album where every time I listen to it I keep waiting for that one track that I start to grow weary of, but it never happens. It’s just an extremely well-rounded album that just happens to sum up the unvoiced rage that we feel less able to express while we’re stuck inside every day. Whether that rage will manifest itself in real change by the end of the year will remain to be seen, but either way, RTJ has continued to provide us with great fight music for 2021 and beyond.