Run the Jewels 4 review: Hip-hop duo pull the pin on this explosive album

Killer Mike and El-P have long-since learnt how to turn their words into ammunition, but this is a distillation of all their anger and elation, hurt and love

Roisin O'Connor
Thursday 04 June 2020 12:29
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El-P and Killer Mike / Artwork by Timothy Saccenti
El-P and Killer Mike / Artwork by Timothy Saccenti

Run the Jewels crave connection. They want it to the point that they’re prepared to give fans their latest album, Run the Jewels 4, for free. “For me this is the only way I really know how to contribute to the human struggle and experience beyond just trying to be kind and aware and grow,” El-P explained in a statement. “It’s the only weapon I’m truly trained in and I’m grateful to have it.”

The hip-hop duo has long-since learnt how to turn their words into ammunition. Their last album, Run the Jewels 3, was a potent mix of mockery and anti-authoritarianism that saw the elder statesmen make pinatas out of the ruling classes. It was their most explicit political statement to date, and their raps were incendiary, impassioned diatribes. Killer Mike continues in this vein on Run the Jewels 4’s hair-raising “Ooh LA LA”: “F** the f***in’ law, ” he declares, his voice firm above the wail of sirens. “We is f***in’ raw.”

They haven’t always succeeded so well when it comes to public political statements. In 2018, Killer Mike was showered with opprobrium for defending gun ownership in an interview with the NRA ahead of the March for Our Lives rally – but this week made a tearful plea for peace in his hometown of Atlanta. On the record, though, rage and destruction feel justified in the wake of grievous injustice, even when the majority craves peace. “I will keep pushing for a better society,” Killer Mike wrote in a recent Instagram post. “But I refuse to not acknowledge the one I am stuck with.”

He and El-P demand your attention on “Walking in the Snow”, which makes a superb (but surprisingly uncredited) guest feature out of Memphis rapper Gangsta Boo, who appeared on Run the Jewels 2. A sinister, creeping beat mirrors racism’s insidious nature, as the duo document issues – from inflammatory headlines to education inequality – that are inextricably linked to the moment a white police officer presses his knee on the neck of a black man who says: “I can’t breathe.”

Run the Jewels 4 is the culmination of their near-30 years of experience, during which time they have observed, listened and reacted. Their anger, hurt, elation and love – along with their near-psychic ability to read and riff off one another’s thoughts – build to the radioactive “A Few Words for the Firing Squad (Radiation)”, the album’s astounding apex. Out of the menacing strings and pounding, thrash-influenced drums comes the piercing squalls of a saxophone, a salute to the blues that fades then flips to a juddering refrain. “There’s a grenade,” gospel legend Mavis Staples had previously howled. Run the Jewels have pulled the pin.

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