Remember when NWA blasted ‘Fuck Tha Police’ and it felt like an anthem for angry, black Americans that even skinny, middle-class white kids in Australia took up? It felt risky and provocative in the 1990s and for black people and people of colour worldwide, such a sentiment could still attract vitriol, if not homicide. There is more than a hint of the same messages NWA rapped bravely and ferociously about in the 1990s on Run The Jewels 4. The Brooklyn hip hop beat is a hark back, akin to what Kanye West and Jay-Z do so well, to the 90s New York sound of gold chains and beatbox block parties where everyone is wearing Yankees caps and Nike Jordans. It’s retro that’s polished up, flawlessly produced and combined with clever, complimentary samples.
There’s been a huge shift towards nostalgia in the pop world this year, with both Dua Lipa and Lady Gaga releasing albums that revel in their Madonna circa-early 1990s bouncy synths and anthemic choruses. Hip hop hasn’t escaped the nostalgia train. It didn’t begin with the pandemic either, since all of the albums being released right now were in production well before February. Whether there was some sort of atmosphere that suggested the world would want to cuddle into their onesies and listen to the music of their school years, or whether this is just the cycle of creativity – where inevitably there’s a clear point at which the current era fixates on the past and tries to re-fashion it – who knows?
Run The Jewels have released more than a nostalgic ode to 90s rap and hip hop royalty led by Dre, Jay-Z, NWA, Biggie and LL Cool J. In fact, their name is ripped from the lyrics to LL Cool J’s ‘Cheesy Rat Blues’. The team of producer/rapper El-P and rapper Killer Mike as Run The Jewels has been releasing digital albums since 2013. Their skills in remixing, clever rhymes and earworm melodies won them stage time at Coachella, supporting Jack White, Austin City Limits Festival and their own solo tours.
“It’s impossible not to feel this is the album that had to land right as the Black Lives Matter protests rock the United States and beyond.”
Great, you’re thinking, but get to the sound – get to why I want to download it and not just the free version, but the cash money upfront digital download via their website. Ok, here goes. From the very first blast of noise and “Back at it like a crack addict!” line, you know it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be wild. It is, for forty relentless minutes. The vocals are clear, resonant and focal. There’s none of the muddy, over-produced percussion and excessive samples that have resulted in a swamp of forgettable rap and hip hop on radio throughout the last decade. This is a quality assured edit. ‘Ooh La La’ is all swaggering beats, spare piano chords, rapid-fire rap tapping into melodic chant, “ooh la la, ah oui oui”. It will get stuck deep in your brain, be warned. The sound of vinyl records squeaking under rubbery fingers, the snippets of cartoon TV themes, the interplay between dueling vocals, gives a playful edge to what is actually a disturbing album at times.
Themes of police violence, racism, social injustice and religion infuse every track. It’s impossible not to feel this is the album that had to land right as the Black Lives Matter protests rock the United States and beyond. Killer Mike even raps “I can’t breathe” on ‘Walking In The Snow’. It will make your own breath catch in your throat. Collaborators span 2 Chainz, Zack de la Rocha of the iconic political-punk outfit Rage Against The Machine, rock god Josh Homme, gospel and blues queen Mavis Staples and the prolific and always welcome Pharrell Williams (‘JU$T’).
There’s a lot of savagery in the lyrical content, in the momentous forward drive, but then a squelchy beat and a creepy sci-fi sample lightens the mood on ‘Walking In The Snow’ between those gasp-worthy moments of horror when you really reflect on where these lyrics come from – a lived reality that so many Twitter activists can’t possibly get, including me. What is really pertinent is that both El-P and Killer Mike are not all front in their neon tracksuited braggadocio, fresh out of the cradle.
This is a duo of 40-something artists who have lived, learned, been crushed by and observed the everyday racism, injustice, corporate corruption, idolising of pop stars and all while being nourished by political, punk protests from the likes of Gang of Four (who get sampled early on), Public Enemy, Jackson Browne and The Clash. Like Grandmaster Flash and Bob Marley who wrote and performed protest songs that didn’t announce themselves as either sombre or alienating, Run The Jewels have packaged their politics into an album that is epic in sound, references, exuberant hopefulness and fantasy riding a thick, bass-rich beat. As a musical work alone, it is genius. There’s enough dynamic shift between tracks to feel like you’ve listened to 4 albums in forty minutes. Mavis Staples howls in her divine, gravelly gospel voice on ‘Pulling The Pin’, “There’s a grenade in my heart and the pin is in their palm/There’s a grenade/There’s a grenade.”
This release is nothing less than canned heat, a lit fuse, a grenade into a previously apathetic world. Listen to RTJ4 and feel something, feel everything, then repeat.
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