Why Run the Jewels 4 is the Best Album of 2020 So Far


RTJ4, or Run the Jewels 4, is the fourth installment in Run the Jewels’s self titled album series. This rap duo is composed of the unlikely pairing of classic MC and producer El-P, and Atlanta rapper Killer Mike.  These two artists worked together for the first time in 2012 on Killer Mike’s El-P produced R.A.P. music; after this successful collaboration, the two joined forces and created the Run the Jewels name that is so well known and respected. Their first Run the Jewels album was released in 2013, and they have been making music since; the two have a very unique take on the hardcore hip-hop subgenre, a combination of very loud abrasive sounds paired with hard-hitting lyrics ranging from a variety of topics such as politics, comically violent depictions of the world, and fun braggadocio. They are known for making very fun music, but with a serious twist as times, and this album is no different.

This new Album seemed to come at a perfect time. The album was released in June, right as the Black Lives Matter protests were picking up, and this album comments on situations similar to those of police brutality and lower class struggle that were native to that time. In fact, the group decided to release this album for free due to the unsettling state of the world at the time – it is pretty obvious that this is a very politically motivated album, and by far the group’s most political to date. This is expressed through the harsh lyricism and loud instrumentals, as well as the brutal delivery by EL-P and especially Killer Mike. Along with these songs, however, are more low-key songs. The singles off this record show this perfectly. 

The first single is the album’s opener: “Yankee and the Brave (ep. 4)”. This title is a reference to where the artists are from, and the song deeply impacts the reader straight from the start. EL-P and Mike both deliver loud and short beats, passing the mic back and forth throughout the cut. The instrumental contains an extremely loud and incessant high pitch synth notes that create a very urgent feel. Later in the track, the beat transforms into a dark piano-derived beat which shows up many times. This song is incredible, from the brutal lyrics to the wild beat, this is exemplar of Run the Jewels. 

The next single, the second, track, is titled “ooh la la”, featuring Greg Nice and DJ Premier, and is easily the most catchy track in the tracklist. The hook includes an incredibly incorporated sample from the song “Dwyck” by Gang Starr. This sample, “ooh, la la, ah, oui  oui” is placed over a looped piano beat, and at the end of the song, you will find yourself singing along. This track is much lighter in tone, and in sound, yet still just as high in quality. 

Another notable moment on the album is from the sixth track, “Walking through the Snow”. This song is by far the most serious in the album and is one of my personal favorites. The song starts out with a high pitched screeching set of notes that seem to come out of a horror movie. This sets the tone very well for the song, which talks about real situations that seem stripped out of a horror movie. The hook, sung by Gangsta Boo, is the repetition of the phrase “just got done walking out the snow, g****n that m********a cold”, delivered with an attitude and urgency that fits the rest of the song appropriately . The snow is a metaphor for lower income areas, and walking through it symbolizes perseverance. This line, as I interpret, is Gangsta Boo speaking for many who do not have an easy life, struggling from poverty or racism. The highlight of this cut, however, is the second verse, by Killer Mike. Without a doubt this is the best verse on the album, and a candidate for rap verse of the year. This verse goes in depth about the effect of racism on communities, and how the rest of the world reacts. A standout line is:

 “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’”

The crazy thing is that this song was recorded in 2019!  What seems like a direct reference to one of America’s most infamous instances of police brutality, along with the quote associated with it, was created in 2019. This chilling line and verse shows how awful society and people can be to black individuals in this country, and I love this song for tackling these topics in such an intelligent and heartbreaking way.  Not only does this album’s highlights contain interesting, awesome sounds, but the significance of their lyrics solidify Run the Jewels 4 as the best album of 2020. 

Back to a couple more lighthearted and fun cuts on the album, “JU$T” featuring Pharell and Zach de la Rocha is the most popular song on this album. With an incredibly smooth beat by Pharell, and an even smoother hook by Mike and Zach, this song was destined to be a hit. The dark themes of racism are still here, but they are portrayed in a less brutal way, and this song becomes very versatile. 

Another unique moment I would like to talk about briefly is the beat switch on track #4, “Holy Calamaf**k”. This song at about the 1 minute 30 second mark, switches from a pretty generic but still quality RTJ style beat to a mysterious and ever growing beat reminiscent of the game Undertale (specifically the amalgamates).  El-P delivered a fantastic verse over this slow but brooding beat with great technical rapping as always. He seems to move with the beat as it changes, and helps the song feel alive rather than stagnant. 

While I have done nothing but praise this great album, there are a few underwhelming moments, as incredible as it is. The song “Holy Calamaf**k” is underwhelming to me with its first half. While still great, it definitely sticks out as a more dull moment, yet the song quickly recovers and ends on a high note. Also, the tenth track “Pulling the pin”, featuring Josh Homme and Mavis Staples seems not needed in the tracklist. The song has a great and eerie hook from Staples, but the feel of the song feels so similar to the song “Never look back”, yet this song is much more dull and neither Mike or EL-P show off their incredible technical abilities here. El-P has a fantastic first verse from a lyrical standpoint, but he is not interacting with the beat as well as on other tracks. It is another lowlight on the record (and that’s still saying something). I still really enjoy the song though, and think it is great. 

Finally, the closer is the last track of the album that solidifies RTJ4 as the best album of 2020: “A few words for the firing squad (radiation)” This song is the longest in the tracklist, at 6 minutes 43 seconds, ans it is one of the most epic sounding songs I have heard in some time. The beat is an intense violin-sounding instrumental loop that increases in pitch and volume. El-P starts off the track perfectly with a verse that seems so hopeful yet hopeless at the same time. It feels like he is about to fight a massive battle for the fate of the universe in the way he is delivering these emotional bars reminiscing about his life and how hard it was at times. It is THAT grand. Killer Mike then takes over with the intensity growing and delivers a verse on par with El-P’s exceptional opener. He discusses similar topics as El-P, yet focuses a bit more on racism throughout this song, police brutality in particular, hence the name. Through his verse a saxophone starts to play at very tense times in a minor chord that makes the song feel like it will explode with any second. After two more short verses, the instrumental seems to die out, and from this 3 minute 30 second mark on, there are no more lyrics from either member. The instrumental, while playing the same notes, transitions from quick notes to slower longer notes as more strings join in. This creates a false sense of calmness that entices the listener beyond belief. A bit later, the song reaches its climax. The strings get louder, and a saxophone blasts over it all. This seems so symbolic to how the world was at this time, and still is, as everything seems to be falling apart into a pool of darkness and chaos. All the sudden, the song ends with a western-style “yankee and the brave” outro, looping the album back to the opening track, and ending a bit calmer than before. This song triggered so many emotions for me while listening due to the sheer intensity of the track, and left me jaw-dropped after hearing it. 

Overall, I absolutely love this album. It is great in so many ways and is one of the rare no-skip albums for me. This album is not only a collection of tracks, but an experience. The tracks flow so well into each other and build upon ideas so cohesively that I feel satisfied after every listen. Killer Mike and El-P are as sharp as they ever have been technically and lyrically, and the production matches the feel of each song so well. Due to the album’s lyrical profoundness and elaborate instrumentals and verses, Run the Jewels 4 is, unquestionably, the best album of 2020.