A group as strident and as angry as Run the Jewels should have run out of gas by now. Artists who create angry, socially conscious rap often run into a point where the politics can overwhelm the music, and it can be difficult to keep people paying attention in a social and political environment in which so much is happening all the time. Indeed, this is what almost happened to Killer Mike and El-P on the third Run the Jewels album, which veered between being consumed with passionate anger and being too light as the duo tried to balance out their vitriol with bad jokes. RTJ4, an album that couldn’t have arrived at a more appropriate time, has all of the energy of its predecessor with none of the freewheeling chaos. Run the Jewels have never sounded as focused or as powerful as they do here.

As with the duo’s previous albums, RTJ4 is injected with a heavy dose of action-movie hyper-reality. The album begins with a scenario out of a heist film, with El arriving in the nick of time to help Mike escape a stand-off with the cops. However, after a few minutes of bluster and wry humor, Mike brings the fantasy into reality with the last line before the outro: “A crooked copper got the dropper, I put lead in his eye/ ‘Cause we heard he murdered a black child, so none of us cried.” Aside from being depressingly prescient—the album was finished well before George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin—it drags the fantasy elements of the album into the real world. After that, the duo faces the absurd, violent reality of America in 2020 head-on, only occasionally dipping back into fantasy as a way to comprehend how fucking absurd the world has become. Mike invokes the history of rap on “goonies vs. E.T.” to highlight how affluent white people’s attitudes towards Black culture hasn’t changed much at all, even if rap lyrics aren’t the subject of congressional hearings anymore. Meanwhile, “walking in the snow” includes a fiery verse from El-P where the New York native takes evangelical Christians to task over their continued support of the philanderous, greedy monster who currently occupies the White House. As ever, Run the Jewels are speaking truth to power, but they wisely allow their anger and passion to take precedence over braggadocio and humor.

That fire translates into the production and arrangement of the album, which is lean, concise, and pointed in a way that Run the Jewels 3 very much wasn’t. El-P and his longtime collaborators Little Shalimar and Wilder Zoby handle production work here again, and they meld old-school, sample-driven maximalism with minimalist percussive beats in a way that keeps the energy on the album from lagging at any point. The guest spots on the album range from the expected (DJ Premier on “ooh la la,” Zack de la Rocha on “JU$T”) to the surprising (Mavis Staples and Josh Homme on “pulling the pin,” Matt Sweeney on “a few words for the firing squad”), but none of them ever feel jarring or out of place. Once again, Killer Mike and El-P have crafted a self-contained, detailed world on a Run the Jewels album, one that seems defiantly out of step with current rap trends (even though A$AP Ferg and 2 Chainz appear as names young people might know). This only further plays into one essential aspect of Run the Jewels as an entity and RTJ4 as an album: a willingness to stand up for one’s principles above all else.

Rarely is art as incidentally tied to its moment in history as RTJ4 will inevitably be to the early summer of 2020, despite this seeming to happen time and time again to the duo’s releases. Even as they approach middle age, Killer Mike and El-P have their finger on the pulse of a movement, and they use that in such a daring way to make an amalgamation of escapist entertainment and strident commentary on the present. It’s hard to gauge the “importance” of an album as new and fresh in the mind as RTJ4, but even if the day comes when its themes won’t be socially relevant anymore, one can imagine that its power as a work of art will not dissipate over time.

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