Run the Jewels is like Double Dragon or Smash TV. The premise is simple: The world is demented, and the path to peace is beset on all sides by villains whose agenda is to divide and conquer. The way out is straight through the middle. Killer Mike and El-P are the classic rap duo in that they come from different worlds but their respective strengths combine to make a more formidable unit. Diverging perspectives align to paint a fuller picture. Where Flavor Flav tempered Chuck D’s academic outrage with accessible humor, and No Malice played remorseful angel opposite Pusha T’s devilish snarl, Run the Jewels balances out Killer Mike’s pointed, personal politics with El-P’s pragmatic nihilism, gallows humor, and apocalyptic beat-making. The world their music depicts is gruesome and hyperreal, dramatic but also not far off from where we’re headed. Each album is a two-player journey through the dark depths of American carnage.
Run the Jewels 4 bursts in with guns blazing as “Yankee and the Brave (Ep. 4)” sees Mike taking on the role of an armed assailant trapped and surrounded by police and pondering who gets to have the kill shot, mirroring the 2013 story of ex-LAPD spree killer Christopher Dorner, whose manhunt and eventual death sparked criticism of the police department, which shot at bystanders during the search and which has long been accused of having a hand in the fire that destroyed the house where Dorner’s body was ultimately found. RTJ4 is an album of prickly, prescient conversations and explosive noise. The best songs call back to scabrous documents of the unrest of 1989 and 1990, like Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, and to edgy political screeds drafted in the years since, like Dead Prez’s Let’s Get Free, the kind of music that used to get rappers in trouble with members of the government for incendiary logic.
RTJ4 is a bone for hip-hop’s middle children, the generation that arrived just as the early rappers and DJs fashioned a new style for themselves out of fabric borrowed from funk and post-disco records but doesn’t necessarily feel chronologically tethered to the era, those who have favorite golden-age albums but keep tabs on the latest drill and trap joints, who don’t feel seen in the ongoing battle between the oldheads and Gen Z, because the kids are right about the elders being stuffy and stubborn, and the elders have a point about the value of a working knowledge of the classics. Jewels is the only popular rap group that would schedule back-to-back songs with 2 Chainz and Nice & Smooth’s Greg Nice, that would think to find space for Pharrell Williams and Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha in the same song and then play Mavis Staples vocals over guitar notes from Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age. (Gorillaz would do this, to be fair, but Gorillaz is not a rap group.) That RTJ4 never feels rudderless is a testament to El and co-producers Little Shalimar and Wilder Zoby’s wide-ranging tastes and knack for closing space between disparate sounds inside a boom-bap beat and to El and Mike’s directness as partners in rhyme.
As much as El-P has always been writing verses about death and destruction and Killer Mike has written about civil disobedience and armed resistance in the same space, RTJ4 feels like the moment when the two doomsayers finally confront the world they’ve been warning us about. (RTJ3 spoke to a darkness in the world on the cusp of 2016, it must be noted, but at the time, we hadn’t quite seen the bottom of it yet.) Naturally, they’re ready. The single “Ooh La La” sees Mike sour on Batman and embrace the chaotic pitch of the Caped Crusader’s chortling foil while El paints a grisly picture of the endgame of a worldwide push toward authoritarianism: “Warmongers are dumping, they’ll point and click at your pumpkin / Your suffering is scrumptious, they’ll put your kids in the oven.” “A Few Words for the Firing Squad (Radiation)” is a list of both rappers’ dreams and regrets and a promise to keep soldiering on for people their music touches: “For the holders of a shred of heart, even when you wanna fall apart / When you’re surrounded by the fog, treading water in the ice-cold dark / When they got you feeling like a fox running from another pack of dogs / Put the pistol and the fist up in the air, we are there, swear to God.”
On “Walking in the Snow,” the eerie prescience of El and Mike’s back catalogue strikes again as the pair lands on the pulse of the spring of 2020 with verses written late in 2019. “Snow” is a gut check for liberals and right-wing conspiracy wonks who feel shielded, by wealth or by whiteness, from the most vile aspects of the current political climate. El warns that everyone is in danger when fascism seizes the day: “Funny fact about a cage, they’re never built for just one group / So when that cage is done with them and you’re still poor, it come for you.” Mike delivers a devastating verse about what happens when state violence and public complacency hold hands: “Every day on the evening news, they feed you fear for free / And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / And till my voice goes from a shriek to whisper ‘I can’t breathe’ / And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV.”
It’s not that Run the Jewels is blessed with clairvoyance the rest of us lack. They’ve been galvanized by the clarity and wisdom that comes with self-aware American adulthood. Mike grew up in Atlanta as the city’s vicious late-’70s child murders widened the rift between the black community and the police force, which had, a decade earlier, been at odds as rioting broke out in the Summerhill neighborhood in the wake of the shooting death of a black suspect by police. His father was an officer who quit the force before the war on drugs helped militarize police and forbade his children to follow his path. El-P hails from New York City, where Michael Griffith and Yusef Hawkins were beat to death by angry mobs for being in the wrong neighborhood at night, where Bernhard Goetz got eight months for shooting four black men in broad daylight on the 2 train, but the Central Park Five did several years for crimes they didn’t commit. To see that as a youth and then to watch what has happened since then to Michael Brown, Eric Garner, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the hundreds of American citizens dying in ways they didn’t have to is a cleansing fire for one’s priorities. How could your blood not boil for retribution after that? It’s no wonder the last words the group utters on this album are, “Fuck you, too.” That’s been the feeling in the streets as long as any of us have lived.
*A version of this article appears in the June 22, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!