April 8, 2021

My Gut Reaction: Run The Jewels - RTJ4 (June 3, 2020)

In the tumultuous summer that was 2020 (which may only appear as such if you remember the stuff that happened outside of your home, easier said than done given how many of us were sheltering in place and/or quarantined), Run The Jewels, the combustible duo made up of rapper Michael “Killer Mike” Render and rapper-slash-primary producer Jaime “El-P” Meline, released their fourth full-length project, one which wasn’t intended to be a direct response to the civil unrest birthed from the murders of multiple Black people by police officers just last year, but sure as shit played like one, given how many of the project’s lyrics could, unfortunately but unsurprisingly given our country’s racist history, apply toward any one of a number of instances.

Jaime and Michael figured that some things would never change, and they were correct.

RTJ4 deviates a tiny bit from the naming convention established with the duo’s first self-titled LP, abbreviating the title just to get that formality out of the way. (Some outlets still refer to it as Run The Jewels 4 online, but come on, we’re all friends here, you know what I’m referring to.) Still, it follows a similar recipe as its three older siblings (and its cousin, the 2015 remix album Meow The Jewels, initially a joke that took on a life of its own, ultimately raising over $60,000 for charity): aggressive, occasionally esoteric boasts-n-bullshit mixed in with some sociopolitical commentary, all taking place over soundscapes provided by El-P (with assists from frequent collaborators Little Shalimar and Wilder Zoby, among others) that sound like Bomb Squad sci-fi beats played through a radio whose batteries are dying. (So, like El-P’s instrumentals for his own solo work, then.)

The guest list remains fairly limited as on previous volumes, a mixture of musician friends El-P and Killer Mike had made during their respective time in the music industry and the occasional oddball brought in to provide a different perspective. The blueprint worked for them in the past, so there was no reason for these guys to start switching shit up now. It worked in 2020 as well – RTJ4 was met with both critical acclaim and praise from their fans, appearing on numerous best-of lists and even debuting in the top ten of the Billboard 200 album chart, no small feat for a project that was given away for free as a digital download, and two days earlier than expected at that.

Album opener “Yankee and the Brave (Ep. 4)” is not just a clever way of referencing how this is the fourth album from a duo consisting of a New Yorker and an Atlanta native by making them sound like the titular characters from a fictional television drama from NBC’s 1980’s primetime lineup, it also is a surprisingly underwhelming song. Killer Michael and El-Producto are in fine form here, both halves of Run The Jewels frothing at the mouth with their aggressive shit-talk, pointed threats, and oddly poetic moments (El-P: “It’s scammer bliss when you puttin’ villains in charge of shit”). But the music itself is lacking any detection of a soul, which is a weird complaint for an instrumental that lives and dies by the amount of noise that can be crammed into a singular space. The beat feels hollow, an empty disguise intended to obscure the fact that these guys may have phoned-in their respective anger here. A shame, really, but considering I wasn’t moved when this single first hit the Web, I’m not all that shocked.

Easily my favorite of the two tracks weaponized to announce the impending arrival of RTJ4, although not without reservation. Nice & Smooth’s Greg Nice may or may not have laid down actual vocals for his part of the “hook” (his guest appearance in the “Ooh La La” video leads me to believe he did), but ultimately what we’re dealing with is a single bar sampled and/or resung from Gang Starr’s “DWYCK”, and even though Nice sounds, er, nice here, it isn’t anything we haven’t already heard, literally. DJ Premier’s participation is also limited to just scratches, something that has happened far more often than not over the past decade. (I used to wonder what the point even was to ask Preemo to contribute to your record if he wasn’t going to produce the fucking thing, but most of the time the artist making the ask isn’t a producer themselves, such as El-Producto.) Still, “Ooh La La” is my shit. Michael and Jaime’s boasts-n-bullshit released at a rapid pace over banging production that provides the braggadocio a stable foundation to group up on. Killer Mike’s “First of all, fuck the fucking law,” is a catchy-ass way to kick off a verse, while El-P’s bars during his opener are delivered with the cockiness and swagger of a dude who mastered his instrumental long ago, but still enjoys breaking it out to school the listener. “Looking for M’s like I lost a friend,” is also a fire way to start things off. Greg Nice’s “hook"complements the beat well, and while Preemo’s scratching was wholly unnecessary, his mere presence helps solidify the connection Run The Jewels has with previous eras of our chosen culture, so I’ll allow it.

Kinda hate this song with every fiber of my being, however. There are two main reasons why. The first is more of a mild annoyance for most, but world-breaking for me: I absolutely abhor how the hook incorporates a voice singing “RTJ” into the mix. I know, I know, rappers talk about themselves all the fucking time, and Run The Jewels specifically have been self-name-dropping since their inception, I don’t care, on here it sounds stupid and condescending, as though the duo didn’t trust that the audience would remember they were listening to a Run The Jewels project in the first place. More to the point, though, is my second grievance – the instrumental, which inverts the same sample source Dr. Dre mined for The D.O.C.’s “It’s Funky Enough” to such a degree that it sounds like Jaime and Mile are merely rapping over that classic’s instrumental being played in reverse, comes across as outright laziness. Heads of a certain age or persuasion won’t be able to prevent themselves from hearing “It’s Funky Enough” while listening to “Out of Sight”, even though the beats isn’t a one-to-one match, and that distraction is far too much of a hurdle for our hosts to ever overcome. Of course, Jaime and Mike did all of this on purpose, even aping some of The D.O.C.’s bars in an effort to bridge toe generational gap, but this song ultimately just sucks. Guest rapper 2 Chainz, while not an out-of-left-field choice due to Michael’s ATL connections, isn’t the best fit for this project either, his lackadaisical delivery and smart-ass lyrics paling in comparison to those of his two hosts. Ughs all around.

RTJ4 swings back in the right direction with the hilariously-titled “Holy Calamafuck,” on which El-P and Killer Mike use up two distinct instrumentals to get their respective points across. Because of Michael’s visible presence in the political sphere, stumping for Bernie Sanders while appearing on multiple news programs, Run The Jewels is often saddled with the ‘political rap’ categorization (the fact that the duo’s lone 2020 concert, recorded as a one-off special for adult swim to make up for the pandemic bringing their touring plans to a screeching halt, was called Holy Calamavote doesn’t help matters much), but that’s very dismissive to both Mike and Jaime, who oftentimes just enjoy talking shit about how much better they each are at rapping than you. To wit, “Holy Calamafuck”, springboarding off of an assist from Cutty Ranks, features Michael bragging about his success while El-P stares in disbelief at the trajectory of his career thus far (“Every other goddamned year I’m brand new / It’s been twenty-plus years, you think that’s a clue?”). Not exactly the most accessible song, but the beat switch is inspired, and our hosts at least sound like they still want to be here, so.

Sonically, “Goonies Vs. E.T.” shares many similarities with “Call Ticketron” from the duo’s third effort, in that both tracks house old-school hip hop sensibilities within a modern-day framework, but this particular song also has a goofy hook performed with apparent sincerity (although the group’s claim that the chorus was originally written for Elton John is anything but sincere) and a performance from Killer Michael that fucking owns. El-Producto is certainly no slacker here, but Mike rattles off the quotables throughout “Goonies Vs. E.T.”, delivering the goods with a politically charged verse (“Got you celebrating the generators of genocide,” he says of the mainstream media) informed by his social conscience and his observant eye, and it’s likely the best verse to be found on RTJ4, although, to be clear, we’re not exactly finished with it yet. El-P’s instrumental is both playful and straight-faced, allowing the bars to maintain their agency. This shit was fucking good.

Simultaneously fascinating and eyeroll-inducing. First, the bad: I wasn’t a fan of El-P’s instrumental for “Walking in the Snow” (although I enjoyed the song intro, which embodied an entirely different energy to me), and bringing back friend of the podcast Gangsta Boo just to have her recite two bars as the “hook” looks like a lack of planning on the part of our hosts. However, the actual verses were fantastic. “Walking in the Snow” will likely go down in history as being the song where Killer Michael utters the phrase, “I can’t breathe,” which wasn’t directly inspired by the murder of George Floyd but is certainly applicable, but El-Producto’s admonishment of “pseudo-Christians” who rationalize locking kids in cages as business as usual also deserves praise. “If even one scrap of what Jesus taught connected, you’d feel different,” El says, and, welp. It’s too bad the ingredients didn’t blend together all that well. The lyrics deserved better. (The outro Gangsta Boo provides was kind of funny, though “Walking in the Snow” is hardly hilarious.)

Given the dollar bill present in the song’s very title, it’s fair to assume that “Ju$t” is obsessed with the concept of acquiring and spending money, and it is, but with an emphasis on minorities who assimilate into white cultural institutions that double as modern-day versions of slavery in their eyes (read: school, Corporate America, etc.) in order to earn that money, and how doing so may leave them feeling falsely equivalent to their peers. It’s clear that our hosts had a lot to say about this topic, so Run The Jewels called in a couple of assists: frequent collaborator Zach De La Rocha (whose former group Rage Against The Machine is so obviously an inspiration for not just Mike and Jaime, but El-P’s entire fucking career, that it’s weird that his rumored album with El-Producto at the help still hasn’t been released) and Pharrell Williams, one half of the production duo The Neptunes and a name whose inclusion on a Run The Jewels song isn’t that surprising when you look back through the various avenues of the man’s career. Skateboard P handles hook duties over bounce-leaning production that, to me anyway, blurrily resembles the work of his Virginia production competitor Timbaland, while El-Producto, Killer Mike, and De La Rocha each deliver a verse attacking society’s ills and norms with venom. Yeah, the hook is a little cringe-y (the “Look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar” bit becomes less mic-drop-worthy with each passing repetition), but everyone brings their A-game on a collaboration that, by most accounts, should not exist. This shit was flames.

I mean, obviously Max is going to gravitate toward the song on the album whose synth-laden loop makes it feel like Jaime and Mike are working their way through the criminal underworld in a 1980’s thriller. Rather than use “Never Look Back” as an excuse for boasts-n-bullshit to spill forth sans context, however, our hosts choose to go the personal route, looking at how their respective pasts have shaped their present, with El-P acknowledging a drinking problem inherited by his parents while Michael talks about the love of his life. The back half of the track consists of various ways our hosts have come up with to convince the listener that constantly looking backward will prevent you from seeing what’s happening right in front of you, and an interlude from an uncredited Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire reinforces that narrative (“The past, the present, the future, all irrelevant”). A nice late-game gem that isn’t as appreciated online as it damn well should be.

Boring as shit. Both halves of Run The Jewels discard their societal observations in favor of shit-talk, but while neither technically sounds bad on “The Ground Below”, the end result is less than unnecessary. This is hip hop, so I expect braggadocio on a regular basis, but songs are intended to entertain the listener, and this just doesn’t. It is what it is.

Each Run The Jewels album features at least one song where the aggression is slowed down to a crawl while the intensity of the performances is ramped up, and RTJ4 is no different. “Pulling the Pin” is a slow burn of a track featuring Josh Homme (of the band Queens of the Stone Age, who produced the track alongside El-P) and singer Mavis Staples, the actual weirdest cameo this project has to offer (sorry, 2 Chainz and Pharrell, but neither of you even came close), and while it ultimately fails to coalesce, the sheer audacity of our hosts is enough to earn them applause, if not outright praise for the song. El-P and Michael provide stone-cold sober deliveries for their respective bars, which mostly ignore braggadocio in order to give the listener something fir their brains to chew on, with only occasional dips into the religious hyperbabble that a track such as this may succumb to under a different artist (not so much because either of our hosts are zealots who wish to drown you in a lake of their beliefs, but more so the observations become relatable by default). My favorite El-P beats tend to be those whose energy matches the implied anger and adrenaline found in the performances, so “Pulling the Pin” isn’t my favorite from the Jewel Runners, although it is far more successful than the previous track. Still, I couldn’t recommend listening to it more than just the one time.

The grand finale of RTJ4 is the defiant “A Few Words for the Firing Squad (Radiation)”, which winds up becoming the most inspirational piece of the entire project. The first two verses feature the acidic boasts-n-bullshit the pair are known for, but their final performances find each speaking directly to the listener, with Jaime vowing to be there “when you’re surrounded by the fog, treading water in the ice cold dark” (remember what I said earlier about oddly poetic moments?) and Michael, with another strong contender for best verse of the album, praising all Black people while dedicating his actions to the movement. “A Few Words for the Firing Squad (Radiation)” is then capped with an instrumental featuring an unexpected saxophone which was a bit jarring, but honestly beautiful in its way. I could have easily done without the actual album outro, “Theme Music”, which is comprised of the theme music (obviously) for the fake Yankee and the Brave TV show introduced at the very beginning of RTJ4, as the tonal shift is legendarily abrupt, although hearing A$AP Ferg aping the Pinky & The Brain theme was at least kind of goofy the first couple of times… and then he just keeps doing it, running the joke into the ground. Ah well.

THE LAST WORD: At this point, one could put together a bulletproof Run The Jewels mix compiled from the four albums, and that would be preferable to RTJ4, whose low points are so inexcusable that it distracts from the overall experience. This is all subjective, of course, and every project’s going to have a stinker or two, but the worst tracks on RTJ4 suffer from one of two ailments – either the music sounds too similar to other work the duo has released, thereby rendering the new song obsolete from the jump (see: “The Ground Below”), or it’s just frustrating to listen to (“Out of Sight”). A lot of RTJ4 treads similar ground as their previous three efforts, and that seeming lack of forward momentum hurts the project the most. As a straightforward listen, you’ll likely tune out well before it ends, and it’s a relatively short album, so that’s never good.

However, the best songs here rank amount the finest in Run The Jewels history. “Ooh La La” is likely the most accessible in the duo’s entire catalog, due solely to the catchy-ass instrumental and the contagious hook Greg Nice always seems to provide on tracks (see: The Beatnuts), even if he wasn’t physically present in the studio to do so. “Ju$t” plays to the duo’s strengths, building off of pitch-perfect cameos from Pharrell Williams and Zach De La Rocha, the latter of whom is a fan favorite, and album closer “A Few Words for the Firing Squad (Radiation)” may as well have been titled “To Be Continued” with the way it leaves the project open-ended. Each Run The Jewels album takes what worked from the preceding volume and ramps up the energy, which sometimes results in fairly mid offerings, but more often than not the songs work, and El-P and Killer Mike clearly have many more years left in them.

RTJ4 isn’t a failure by any means, but I found myself not loving a lot of it (for context, my favorite of their projects is their sophomore effort), only to be swayed by the stuff that actually is fantastic. Cherry-pick the tracks you enjoy and keep it moving.


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  1. I'm probably the world's foremost El-P stan, but I feel like his production has been losing some oomph on the last two RTJ albums and the formula is starting to feel a bit stale. It's a solid album, but everyone involved has done better.

  2. I'm completely surprised that you didn't think the hook to "Ooh La La" was stupid as fuck

    1. I am too, if we're being honest. I think my joy of hearing Greg Nice's voice over an El-P beat overrode the sheer ridiculousness of the "hook" itself.

  3. I really hope these guys take a break and do some solo albums or something before the next project because it's starting to feel (to me at least) like RTJ is running on fumes, very potent fumes, but fumes nonetheless. I was actually surprised how well received this album was especially seeing it on so many year end lists. Not to say it sucks but it's certainly not top 10 of rap releases last year.

  4. If only El-P delves into a nostalgia phase and rediscovers what he was on when he made The Cold Vein... Not saying bring us Electric Boogaloo, but a homage thereto/evolution thereof.