Entertainment

Run the Jewels Released Their New Album Early And It's Already Making a Difference

Killer Mike and El-P are bringing the noise and raising money for a national defense fund while they do it.

run the jewels
Killer Mike and El-P of Run the Jewels | Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images
Killer Mike and El-P of Run the Jewels | Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images

In recent years, the defiant, confrontational hip-hop of Run the Jewels has been everywhere in movies, TV shows, and commercials. From the raucous trailer for the teen comedy Booksmart to the blood-soaked ending of the most recent season finale of the Netflix drama Ozark, the gut-punch energy of rappers Killer Mike and El-P works like a cheat code for getting your blood pumping and your brain racing. Now the pair is back with RTJ4, a collection of 11 new songs that speak to the spirit of political unrest and righteous fury currently fueling protests across the nation. The album was supposed to drop for free on Friday, but the duo surprise released it on Wednesday because, in their words, "fuck it, why wait?"

Like the other three Run the Jewels records, RTJ4 was released as a free download online via their website, and it's currently available to listen to on your streaming service of choice. But the group has also suggested that fans make a donation to the National Lawyers Guild Mass Defense Fund, an organization that provides legal support for political activists, protesters, and movements for social change. According to El-P, who has been tracking the progress of the fundraiser on Twitter, listeners have been more than happy to show their support, raising almost $150,000 in just over 24 hours. That's a lot of cash for a good cause. 

It's not too late to make your own contribution and check out the new record, which El-P recently described to the New York Times as "armed robbery with a moment of self-discovery" music. Sounds good, right? Written and recorded long before the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, the album has a potency and directness that captures the tension and the possibility of the current moment. Tracks like the opener "yankee and the brave (ep. 4)," which features Killer Mike in a face-off with the cops, and "walking in the snow," which directly references the 2014 police killing of Eric Garner, sound ripped from either your Twitter feed, the evening news, or the streets outside.

At the same time, tracks like "ohh la la" and "out of sight," featuring a welcome guest verse from 2 Chainz, hit the same festival-ready, head-nodding sweet spot the group has perfected since releasing the first Run the Jewels album back in 2013. The duo still knows how to crack rude jokes and have fun, allowing the joy of their real-life friendship to serve as a counterweight to the big-picture themes and the "skyline ablaze in a Bob Ross pic" sounds of El-P's rumbling production. With its images of people dancing freely and money burning in piles, the "ohh la la"video, which was shot before social-distancing became a part of the national vocabulary, feels like either a plan or a prophecy.

As a project, Run the Jewels has always had an overtly political dimension -- the two first collaborated on 2012's Killer Mike's solo record R.A.P. Music, which featured the jolting drug policy explainer "Reagan" -- and RTJ4 is never afraid to point the finger at the villains running the show. ("Your country gettin’ ran by a casino owner," raps Mike on "ju$t," a standout track featuring Pharrell Williams and Zack de la Rocha.) In his role as a TV host on Netflix's gonzo comedy series Trigger Warning and as a surrogate for Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, Killer Mike (whose real name is Michael Render) has become just as well-known for his impassioned activism as his provocative lyrics in some circles.  

Last Friday, Render drew both praise and criticism for a speech he made following the protests in his hometown of Atlanta on Friday. Standing beside Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, he spoke of his own personal connections to the Atlanta Police Department and described his response to the death of George Floyd. "I watched a white officer assassinate a black man," he said. "And I know that it tore your heart out, and I know that it's crippling."

He went on to deliver a message to the residents of the city: "It is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy." While his words were widely shared and retweeted by figures like LeBron James and Eminem, some observers, like NPR's Gene Demby, pointed out the "distance" between Render's even-keeled public rhetoric and his more bomb-throwing lyrics. It's a contradiction that can't be easily resolved or waved away. On "goonies vs. E.T." off RTJ4, Render himself insists "ain't no revolution that's televised and digitized," echoing Gil Scott-Heron and perhaps suggesting there's only so much that can be accomplished on the internet -- or on a record. 

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.