Together as Run the Jewels, Killer Mike and El-P have rewritten the rules of modern rap. Now both 45 years old, it’s no accident the two accomplished veterans are on the hottest streak of their careers. The fourth installment in the duo’s essential self-titled series is as vital and of the moment as anything in their increasingly historic catalog. RTJ4 is another alt-rap tour de force, a call to arms for the movers and shakers ready to obliterate the corrupt social and political systems of the past and present. It’s more trunk-knocking beats and riot-provoking bars, delivered with an ever-urgent tenacity only Mike and El can provide.
Musically, RTJ4 expands on the abrasive electronic-infused sound that has become the duo’s trademark. Structurally, the songs are rather straightforward, featuring less spontaneous beat switches and allowing ample space for the two MCs to flex their tactical flows. The verses here dominate, as neither Mike or El waste too many bars on the carnal humor that has welcomely flooded their previous releases. Instead they remain laser-focused on condemning the social injustice and systemic oppression that has further stained America in 2020. Mike’s vulgar and nimble wordplay steals the show on “walking in the snow” and “JU$T,” the latter of which includes a snappy hook from Pharrell Williams.
Throughout the record, El-P’s production remains dense and invigorating, a style still unlike anyone else in the rap game. The tribal undertones of “holy calamafuck” underscore El Producto’s mastery of crafting eerie and fractured soundscapes, while the seismic bass blasts on “yankee and the brave (ep. 4)” and the punchy piano-rap of “ooh la la” emphasize his tendency to look to classic hip-hop for sonic inspiration. While El has always honored the essence of old school New York beatmaking, his likeness for conjuring weird and off-kilter instrumentals also endures. Take the futuristic synth grooves of “never look back” or the suspenseful tones of “goonies vs. E.T.,” where noise and trap clash with free jazz, and it’s evident that time has only refined and emboldened his chops as an architect of sound.
On the surface, it wouldn’t be outlandish to say Run the Jewels albums are formulaic. But when the songs are this brooding, well-crafted and hard-hitting, such a claim is insignificant. Together, Killer Mike and El-P are undeniably consistent and consistently great. RTJ4 is yet another explosive, well-measured sock in the face.
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