YouTuber and cultural critic Lindsay Ellis has noted that the most successful protest song of the Bush era was Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’. She also notes that the song doesn’t mention any of the era’s major political issues by name. The unwritten rule that politically explicit music cannot do well was upended this year, by Run the Jewel’s phenomenal RTJ4.
The creatively named fourth album from the rap duo fronted by Killer Mike and El-P is furiously, breathlessly charged. Where Green Day had to stick to vague ideas about a “nation controlled by the media”, Killer Mike and El-P are explicit in their politics. ‘the ground below’ features the lyrics “I support sex workers unionising they services.” On ‘walking in the snow’, Mike raps “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’.” Those were amongst the last words of George Floyd, who was killed nine days before the album’s release.
Run the Jewels are only too comfortable with the changes that have occurred in rap, hip-hop and protest music
Previous eras of protest music maintained their anti-establishment mystique by disavowing pretension and up-market production value. Woodie Guthrie’s act was a man with a guitar. Punk is proudly built on a fanbase of misfits, looking up to people who were more songwriter than singer. Run the Jewels arrived on the rap and hip-hop scene when the opposite was true, long after stripped-back production was the norm for either genre. Where this might shake the confidence of other artists looking to make a statement, El-P is a producer as well as a rapper. He is only too comfortable with the change. RTJ4’s polished production compliments the experience and confidence that oozes from both of the duo’s verses.
That is not to say that Mike and El-P hog the limelight. The album features an impressive list of features, including 2 Chainz and Pharrell Williams. RTJ4 manages to combine the rawness of a protest album with the refined talent you can only attract when you have the industry’s respect. As Kendrick Lamar rapped on To Pimp a Butterfly, if he received the critical acclaim he deserved, “Killer Mike’d be platinum”.
So, why is this the best album of 2020 so far? Some artists are spending lockdown reinventing themselves. Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons collaborated with Major Lazer, and Taylor Swift is currently pretending to be an up-and-coming folk musician (not unsuccessfully). Run the Jewels, on the other hand, are content making the same music they’ve been making for the better part of a decade. You can see this in their branding. Their album covers are all functionally identical, and their names are about as original. Their first album was self-titled, their sophomore release was called Run the Jewels 2 and their third was called – get this – Run the Jewels 3. This is not a duo that feels the need for reinvention: they don’t get fans by changing themselves. They get fans when music listeners become radicalised.
RTJ4 confirms Run the Jewels as a voice for frustration
Just like Run the Jewels, things have not changed. More, we have become more alert to the way things have always been. As the modern civil rights movement continues, it’s tempting for artists to cash in on its moment in the Sun. A lot of musicians have attempted political music or protest song before, but it often comes out as forced or disingenuous. This album is the opposite, and confirms Run the Jewels as a voice for contemporary frustration. No album better captures the fractured political tone or turbulence of 2020 than RTJ4.
Last modified: 7th August 2020