Less than 90 seconds into the fourth album from dastardly rap duo Run the Jewels, Killer Mike finds himself surrounded. “I got one round left, 100 cops outside,” begins the Atlanta emcee and activist born Michael Render. “I can shoot at them or put one between my eyes.”
No context, no explanation, no need. “Chose the latter, it don’t matter, it ain’t suicide / And if the news say it was, that’s a goddamn lie.” He’s riding a crisp, vicious drum loop wed to an ominous cartoon-villain bass line; the paranoiac keyboard stabs intensify as his resolve hardens. “I can’t let the pigs kill me, I got too much pride / And I meant it when I said it, never take me alive.”
You wince; you stop doing whatever else you’re doing; you struggle, in this terrible moment, to separate raucous crime fiction from harrowing police-state fact. But salvation arrives via Mike’s Run the Jewels costar, El-P. “I got the Grand Nat running in the alley outside,” announces the Brooklyn rapper-producer born Jaime Meline. “Now Michael, run like you hungry and get your ass in the ride.”
El-P is referring to the Buick Grand National pictured here: Note the luxe Grand Theft Auto aesthetic, the custom license plate, the shotgun, the peals of pink and lavender smoke pouring from the tires, the rapturous smile plastered across Killer Mike’s face. (Mike owns this vehicle IRL; it’s his dream car.) This is all supposed to be fun, or at least a little silly; two longtime friends and world-conquering rap heroes talking shit even as they express, in their own mischievous ways, their love for one another. “I’d rather have and not need you than watch your rotten demise,” El-P explains. “And you still owe me for them Nikes / You do not get to just die.” As for everyone else: “You try to fuck with my brother, you get the bastard surprise.”
They peel off into the pink-and-lavender sunset, their exuberance and the rhyme scheme intact. “A crooked copper got the dropper / I put lead in his eyes,” Mike adds. “’Cause we heard he murdered a black child so none of us cried.” Most likely you haven’t gone back to whatever you were doing when you first put this record on. How could you? How can anyone?
RTJ4 hit the internet Wednesday, two days ahead of schedule, because, as the fellas themselves put it, “Fuck it, why wait.” (As with every Run the Jewels record, they’re offering it as a free download, and raising money for charity via their other merch.) I will not pretend I am capable of separating this album from its awful circumstances; I’d like to see you try. Here in June 2020, amid global protests triggered by the killing of a black man, George Floyd, by Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, few artists in any genre have the necessary audacity, and authority, to run toward this chaos of dismay and rage and defiance, not away from it. This is the rap album this moment demands, in that at least for now, it barely registers as a plain old rap album at all.
Killer Mike—a thoughtful and forceful historian, an ardent Bernie Sanders supporter, the host of an adventurous Netflix talk show, and if we’re lucky a future firebrand politician—had in fact already risen to this occasion. On Saturday, after protests and riots swept across his hometown as they did virtually every major city nationwide, he gave a teary, devastating speech alongside T.I. and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. He expressed solidarity with the cops (“I’m the son of an Atlanta city police officer”) and the protestors both. (“I’m mad. As. Hell. I woke up wanting to see the world burn down yesterday, because I’m tired of seeing black men die.”) His voice wobbled, from the start, as he drummed on the podium, but his message was firm, a plea with the force of a divine command: “It is your duty to not burn your own house down for anger with an enemy.” Please watch this.
He is wearing, yes, a T-shirt with the slogan “Kill Your Masters,” a nod to a Run the Jewels song. There is no line between the precariousness of his life and the immortality of his art anymore. “I can’t breathe,” Floyd begged, as he died. “I can’t breathe,” begged Eric Garner, a black man killed by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014. “I can’t breathe,” raps Killer Mike, on the RTJ4 track “Walking in the Snow,” his pulverizing baritone shrinking down to a terrifying minuscule wheeze, just for those words. More specifically:
And 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
Until my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, “I can’t breathe”
And then the pulverizing baritone is back. He’s talking to you, whoever, whatever, wherever you are, however complicit.
And you sit there in house on couch and watch it on TV
The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy
But truly the travesty: You’ve been robbed of your empathy
Replaced it with apathy, I wish I could magically
He speeds up; history is speeding up.
Fast-forward the future so then you can face it
And see how fucked up it’ll be
I promise I’m honest, they coming for you
The day after they comin’ for me
That future is here; RTJ4, in both its joyful camaraderie and its towering fury, has risen to face it, to fight it. The union of Killer Mike (an undersung Dungeon Family prodigy) and El-P (a weary, underground-rap titan) was an unlikely but undeniable bonus multiplier for both veterans from their 2013 full-length Run the Jewels debut onward, their glee infectious, their bond instantly unbreakable, their styles (cerebral but knuckleheaded, staunchly political but lewdly personal) distinct but marvelously compatible.
El-P, a coarse and mesmerizing rapper who graciously cedes much of RTJ4’s spotlight to his partner in crime and punishment, has variously described this record as a “punch in the face,” a “completely relentless, savage fucking punch in the face,” and “the most frigid of New York days, and you’re walking out of Katz’s with a pastrami sandwich, and somebody punches you in your face.” The duo’s last album, 2016’s Run the Jewels 3, was nominally a mellower and more emotionally internal affair, but if you’re familiar with anything these guys have ever done, all this face-punching won’t exactly strike you as a departure. What’s different, this time, is the intensity of the turmoil into which it was born.
RTJ4’s production—handled as always by El-P and the brothers Little Shalimar and Wilder Zoby—spans from eerie sci-fi minimalism to enraged poli-sci maximalism, the righteous samples spanning from taunting ’90s-NYC rap royalty Greg Nice on “Ooh La La” to seething ’70s post-punk anarchists Gang of Four on “The Ground Below.” Your old friend Gangsta Boo parachutes into “Walking in the Snow” to deliver the thrilling and diamond-hard hook (“Goddamn that motherfucker cold”). Your old friend 2 Chainz, dropping by on the extra-pummeling “Out of Sight,” understands the gravity of our endless national situation but is unfazed by it: “I get a text like ‘Stay safe’ / Text back, ‘I miss that pussy, be home soon and I can’t wait.’” Your older friend Zack De La Rocha, whose old band Rage Against the Machine was poised to tour the world with RTJ this year, is also unfazed but way less nonchalant: “LOOK AT ALL THESE SLAVE MASTERS,” he howls on “JU$T” alongside a chiller but just as savvy Pharrell, Zack’s every word a thunderbolt, his every breath a bomb.
That’s about all I got, in terms of rock-critic-speak. It’s not that there’s no release, no goofiness, no supervillainous glee on RTJ4: “Until you rob a hypebeast, you ain’t seen sadness,” Mike notes on a song called “Holy Calamafuck.” But even his usual paeans to the joys of armed robbery are often coated in sadness: “Ru-ru-run your motherfuckin’ pockets when I come,” he demands on “Out of Sight,” before paying tribute to his mother, who died in 2017. “It’s an honor to be robbed by Denise’s only son.” He raps about PTSD; he raps about a mourning so prolonged it almost consumed him. “It’s crippling, make you wanna lean on a cup of promethazine,” he admits on “A Few Words for the Firing Squad (Radiation),” a closing track that doubles as yet another rebirth. “But my queen says she need a king, not another junkie-flunky rapper fiend.”
But the record’s emotional climax comes just before that on “Pulling the Pin,” costarring hard-rock heavyweight Josh Homme and none other than Mavis Staples, gospel-blues-soul icon and national treasure. Mike and El-P both are still teetering between merry aggression and painful vulnerability, between doling out punishment and struggling to withstand it. They are burning, and trying like hell not to burn down everything around them, even if everyone around them seems to deserve it. Mike’s promise to us is this:
I’ll murder the miserables
I’ll make it all biblical
I’ll cut off their heads, they’ll beg for their lives, and I’ll put it up digital
Fuck the political
The mission is spiritual
A murderous miracle that was sent here to just punish the terrible
But Mike, too, knows when to graciously cede a spotlight, and it’s Staples’s voice that’ll stick with you, a hook that tears right through you: “There’s a grenade in my heart / And the pin is in their palm.” This is a beloved human and unifying force so profound she put out a gentle song called “All in It Together” back in April. How fast can history move before even the best of us collapse, exhausted? What could matter less than a rap album right now? What could matter more than this one? Bite down—whoever and wherever you are, however much of this pain and anger and furious defiance is rightfully yours, whatever your duty is in atoning for and weaponizing it—and you might find the pin between your teeth.