History is a fickle motherfucker, but you gotta hand it to whatever forces have aligned to drop a new Run the Jewels record in this particular moment. By the fourth installment, most pop culture franchises can start to seem pretty tired. Not El-P and Killer Mike: On RTJ4, the duo deliver their agit-rap gospel with the spry fire of a band making its debut. When they first got together for Run the Jewels in 2013, RTJ seemed like a bit of an odd couple. But thunder-voiced Atlanta rapper Killer Mike and Brooklyn avant-hip-hop rapper-producer El-P have gelled like loose-cannon partners in a great buddy-cop movie, with Mike’s left-wing politics a perfect counterpoint to El-P’s explosive beats and dystopian paranoia on three excellent RTJ LPs. Meanwhile, El-P has continued as an in-demand producer and remixer for artists as big as Beck and Lorde, and Mike has emerged as an important voice in left politics. His remarks in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police carried more impassioned, well-reasoned moral weight than the vast majority of what we were hearing from professional pundits or career politicians.
RTJ4, which the band rush-released a few days ahead of schedule, is laser-focused, as if Mike and El-P are trying to outrun the apocalypse. “Pass the shit, Mike, I have to insist it/Reality sucks dick/Now, how’s that for wisdom?” El-P offers over the Godzilla-fart drones and slow-drip snare cracks of “Holy Calamafuck.” They’ve responded to an unglued world by updating the war-dance attack of Public Enemy and Ice Cube for an even grislier political age. Fascism slaps, and they slap back. El-P’s beats are harried and hype, evoking a sunless sci-fi tomorrow in the bleary attack of “Never Look Back” and “Walking In the Snow.” The lyrics are designed to shake even the most self-regardingly woke of us out of our complacency — Killer Mike lists the “hypnotized and Twitterized” alongside the “generators of genocide” he’s lashing out at during the Grade-A skull-rattler “Goonies vs. ET.”
Mike unloads on racist cops, systemic poverty, corporate media, and other eternal enemies. But the album never feels preachy, because the music bounces as much as it brays, with an elastic flow and deep history. They bring on golden-age hip-hop artists Greg Nice and DJ Premier for the playful East Coast party banger “Ooh La la”; Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age and septuagenarian soul queen Mavis Staples appear on “Pulling the Pin,” a mordantly eerie meditation on the personal stakes of playing the devil’s money game. And it’s hard to think of another context where Pharrell and Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine could hang out on a song that ties Instagram self-promotion to capitalist exploitation, but there they are on “Just.”
The album’s hottest heat rock, “The Ground Below,” is a punk-rap fusion for the ages, flipping a bracing shot of guitar from “Ether” by Marxist funk-punks the Gang of Four into a swinging weapon of liberation — saluting the sex workers’ union, damning the profit motive, and promising to leave the world a less fucked-up place than they found it. On “Ether,” the Gang of Four sang about exposing the dirt behind capitalism’s narcotizing daydream. In their own righteous vengeance, RTJ pick up that revolutionary notion and blow the whole lie wide open. And if you can’t get down with that, collect your MAGA hat at the door.