This week, rap duo Run the Jewels released their first album in four years, RTJ4, and due to the present explosive tension in America, they decided to share it two days early. “Fuck it, why wait?” they said in a press statement. “The world is infested with bullshit so here’s something raw to listen to while you deal with it all. We hope it brings you some joy. Stay safe and hopeful out there and thank you for giving 2 friends the chance to be heard and do what they love.”
The album, which features appearances from Mavis Staples, Pharrell, 2 Chainz, Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de La Rocha and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, spans themes of systemic oppression and personal struggles, and though that’s nothing new for the group, these songs hit especially hard right now. Killer Mike and El-P wrote and recorded the album back in 2019, but many social media users were so shocked at its prescience that they speculated whether the album was amended after the tragic killing of George Floyd and subsequent nationwide protests. Run the Jewels made an album that our grieving, angry country desperately needed, and in honor of its brilliance, we’re sharing some of its most biting lyrics. There’s so much great, nimble wordplay on this album, but we wanted to shine a light on the socially-conscious lines that should be scrolled on protest posters and shouted on the streets.
”I got one round left, a hunnid cops outside / I could shoot at them or put one between my eyes / Chose the latter, it don’t matter, it ain’t suicide / And if the news say it was, that’s a goddamn lie” (“yankee and the brave (ep. 4)”)
One of Killer Mike’s verses on the album’s opening track illustrates a sad reality—that our criminal justice system is so deeply flawed that many minorities, particularly Black people, would rather die by their own volition than face a system that is so historically stacked against them. It also addresses how the media is ill-equipped to frame instances of police brutality, which only furthers the racial divide.
“The crooked copper got the dropper, I put lead in his eye / Plus we heard he murdered a black child so none of us cried” (“yankee and the brave (ep. 4)”)
Police violence has broken our society in a number of ways, but one of the most prominent and detrimental effects is the dehumanization of Black people. While the media swoons over the disappearance or mistreatment of white kids (the cuter, the better!), they’re happy to ignore the plight of Black children (watch the recent HBO show, Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children).
“When we talk, we Kalashnikov, keep us in your thoughts” (“ooh la la”)
El-P’s first verse on “ooh la la” is meticulously rhythmic as he fires off internal rhymes and sharp wordplay, and this line likens his rapid delivery to an automatic rifle while also tipping his hat to the ridiculous, empty statements provided by politicians after rampant gun violence.
“Cues to the evenin’ news, make sure you ill-advised / Got you celebratin’ the generators of genocide / Any good deed is pummeled, punished and penalized / Rulers of the world will slice it up like a dinner pie” (“goonies vs. E.T.”)
These are some of the spiciest lines of the bunch. It’s important to criticize the media in non-Trumpian ways, especially for its cushy, buddy-buddy relationship to the most powerful and evil among us. The sooner we realize that corporate TV news is made to please a certain demographic and its corresponding advertisers rather than to inform the public, the better.
“And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me / And ‘til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe’ / And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV / The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy” (“walking in the snow”)
This is the line that shook people the most. El-P wrote on Twitter that the “I can’t breathe” line was a nod to Eric Garner, who was killed by an illegal police chokehold in 2014, but we now know that the phrase was also uttered by George Floyd before he was recently killed by cops. History repeats itself in cruel ways, and this instance is really difficult to swallow. Unlike past incidents, Floyd’s killing has resulted in sustained nationwide and global protests, so perhaps the cycle of mourning, outrage and political inaction that Killer Mike refers to here will finally be broken.
“All of us serve the same masters, all of us nothin’ but slaves / Never forget in the story of Jesus, the hero was killed by the state” (“walking in the snow”)
Run the Jewels reference the hypocrisy of “pseudo-Christians” a few times in this song, but it’s most impactful when they frame Jesus, not as the non-controversial figure he’s often portrayed as, but as an outspoken victim of the same tyrannical, immoral systems that we live in today.
“Just us ducks here sitting / Where murderous chokehold cops still earnin’ a livin’ / Funny how some say money don’t matter / That’s rich now, isn’t it, get it? / Comedy’’ (“JU$T”)
There are several layers to this lyric. El-P’s image of “sitting ducks” is a powerful one, now that we’ve seen countless videos on social media of police lines charging at peaceful protesters who are cowering while sitting on the pavement as cops shower them in tear gas. “Murderous chokehold cops” is a relevant phrase for obvious reasons. While many of those cops have yet to be fired, even more of them have yet to be indicted by the law. Your thoughts on prison and police abolition aside, having killer cops in the force is state-sponsored violence—pure and simple. El-P manages to bookend this dark passage with a corny joke, but delivered via forceful rap, it totally lands.
“These guys have a better chance of killin’ each other / Than beatin’ the odds” (“a few words for the firing squad (radiation)”)
The outro of the closing track sounds like an on-screen narration from a mafia movie or GTA game. “Yankee and the Brave,” which refers to El-P and Killer Mike respectively (these are the nicknames of their hometown MLB teams), are the characters of an imagined TV show, and it’s this kind of cinematic moment that adds grandeur to quite a gritty album. The narrator characterizes them as “a couple small-time hustlers framed by crooked cops and forced to make a run for their lives” with “nothin’ but a bag of money” and “a stolen Buick Grand National,” but this outro is also used to make a larger point about poverty and crime. Run the Jewels frequently discuss how lucky they were to make it out of their situations, and they also reiterate that they’re anomalies in a class system that only allows very few escapees.