If history has taught us anything, it’s that music has played an integral part in the pursuit of social justice for a long time. James Brown’s ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black And I’m Proud’, U2’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Killing In The Name’ and – more recently – Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ are just a few of the songs that have soundtracked revolutionary action over the years.
Over the past week, thousands of people have taken to the streets in the US and across the world to protest following the death of George Floyd, an African-American man who was killed on May 25 when a white police officer, who has now been charged with second-degree murder, knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minute as he lay on the ground during an arrest (his alleged crime? Possession of a counterfeit $20). Floyd’s horrendous killing has reignited widespread Black Lives Matter protests, online and in the streets.
‘Run The Jewels 4’, the much-anticipated new album from hip-hop duo Run The Jewels – comprised of rapper Killer Mike and producer/rapper El-P – couldn’t be more appropriate for the times we’re living in. “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’,” raps Killer Mike, RTJ’s beloved social activist, on the defiant ‘walking in the snow’. It’s a track that also sees them question the school system, biased news reporting and unruly religious mobs.
Mike is no stranger to speaking out on social issues. Just last week the community leader delivered an impassioned speech during a press conference in Atlanta in which he pleaded with the protesting residents of his home city to not “burn your own house down for anger with an enemy”. Instead, he suggested it was time to “plot, plan, strategise, organise and mobilise.”
As with their previous three releases – all self-titled and numbered – there’s a lot to unpack on Run The Jewels’ fourth outing. Whether it’s police brutality, fear-mongering media outlets, pseudo-Christians or inner spiritual conflict, no stone is left unturned. They announce that they’re “back at it like a crack addict” and there’s no treading lightly as Mike and El-P go full-on with brazen declarations such as: “Look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar.”
They take listeners to church at a rapid-fire pace; blink and you’ll miss a lot of what’s being said on ‘RTJ4’. They usher in chaos over the haunting Wu-Tang Clan-inspired keys of ‘Ooh La La’ and condemn social media’s superficially “woke folk” on album standout ‘Goonies vs. E.T.’. To merely skim Mike and El-P’s latest sermon would be to do yourself a real disservice.
On ‘the ground below’, El-P spits: “We just gave you inspiration for free/ The money never meant much.” It’s an admirable statement on its own, but now holds far greater weight, since the duo announced that they would be releasing ‘RTJ4’ for free in light of recent events. As El-P put it on Instagram: “We hope it brings you some joy.”
The heart-pounding ‘pulling the pin’, featuring legendary R&B singer and civil rights activist Mavis Staples and Queen Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme, sees RTJ wonder if they’ll ever arrive at spiritual utopia without being tempted by the devil’s charm. Mike feels conflicted: “I promised my mama that I would stay honest, but I want it all in the physical.” Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha appears on the tightly coiled, Pharrell-featuring ‘JU$T’, as if to underline the fact that the record is a modern protest classic. “The breath in me is weaponry,” he boasts.
Mike and El-P even find time to visit the confession booth on the high-powered ‘a few words for the firing squad (radiation)’. Manoeuvring through a sea of gorgeous strings and beautifully drawn out synths — which are complemented by an empowering sax arrangement reminiscent of J. Cole’s ‘Let Nas Down’ — Mike and El-P revisit their journey to becoming musical crusaders who fight injustice on rap’s frontlines. “Black child in America/ The fact that I made it’s magic,” Mike raps.
‘RTJ4’ isn’t all about social consciousness or spiritual awareness. Sometimes it’s simply a stage for Mike and El to puff out their chests and drop some witty bars while juiced up on bravado. On ‘out of sight’ El-P styles out the smoking of a cigarette the wrong way round: “Man, I smoke a bogie backwards with a thumb up like it’s fine.” Mike, on the other hand, prefers to throw a haymaker punchline at his fellow MCs on the menacing ‘holy calamafuck’: “You’re a common cold and my flows are cancerous.”
Easily Mike and El-P’s best work to date, ‘RTJ4’ is protest music for a new generation; they’re armed in the uprising with a torrent of spirited rallying calls. And they are fearless in their approach to holding middle America and its apathetic leaders accountable. This is less ‘What’s Going On’ and more ‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’ — although there’s no doubt that Marvin Gaye would enjoy hearing Killer Mike’s last words for the firing squad: “Fuck you, too.”