JUNE: RTJ4

Cometh the hour, cometh the album.
Sometimes a record captures a moment in time so perfectly, it becomes a symbol of that moment. I honestly believe that RTJ4 might be one of those records.

I don’t want to be a big review like we normally do, I’d rather we used this as a kicking off point for discussion – this is a ‘free album’ month after all, and we’ll get back to the proper AOTM for July.

But…I was thinking a lot about what Brother Nolan said on our live chat the other week, that he thought it was one of RTJ’s weaker releases. I don’t know about that. I know that I’ve listened to this RTJ’s album more than any other that has come out. BY MILES. Now, maybe it’s the times we’re living in, maybe it feels like even more of a reflection. But this is a lean, mean beast. Clocking in at 39 mins and 11 tracks, it’s the length of an album from the 1960s, not a hip hop album in 2020, which, let’s face it, is ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS TOO FUCKING LONG.

That brevity seems to give the Killer Mike and El-P a laser focus, and honestly, I don’t think there’s a wasted moment on this record. No, not every track is out there political. Yes, the conceit of them as two outlaws on the run (referenced on the opening and closing tracks) is a little obvious and they don’t go anywhere with it. Yes, Ooh La La is a total throwback tune (but come on, WHAT a tune).

But seriously, there are four or five cuts on here that are essential to anyone at any time. Guests are used really well – like, they bring something to the table every time. Pharell’s collab (along with a great cameo from Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha) on JUST is as good a thing as he’s done in a long time – what a fucking smart track that is, expressing something complex and angry at the same time, . And a banger too. PULLING THE PIN is straight out astonishing, the addition of Mavis Staples voice adding so much pain and anguish to the track. And the Gangsta Boo tune WALKING IN THE SNOW is, to my mind, as good a track as they have ever made. It’s so angry and articulate and it smacked me sideways when I first heard it.

Basically, I love it. I can’t stop listening to it. It’s gonna be one of my albums of the year. Over to you, brothers…

6 comments

  1. nolankane706

    Brother David I spoke WAY too soon. Note to self: ‘First rule of discussing albums with people… don’t do it after only listening to it a few times’.

    Eminem said “I don’t make white music, I don’t make black music. I make fight music for high school kids’. RTJ makes revolution music for all. Since first hearing them I have been addicted. Every album I have high expectations because they have always stepped their game up with each release.

    I admit, it took me a few times to digest this album. On reflection it’s been the same with all their albums. When digested I was blown away. Music, lyrics, the well places guest appearances. There is a strong argument that this is my favourite album thus far in 2020. This is so far their most approachable album musically whilst not pulling punches.

    I’m struggling to find an track on this album that I have even a minor dislike of. It’s so good! I do have a bias. RTJ are one of the best things in music and have been since their inception in my opinion. The beats are insane, the lyrics are water tight and if you’ve ever been lucky enough to see them live it’s intense.

    I’ve read a few reviews stating that this album is perfectly timed with the current events in America and the BLM movement. This really frustrates me. Run The Jewels haven’t changed their commentary since their first album. Killer Mike and El-P views and message has always been the same long before RTJ. As solo artists they were questioning the establishment, and together they are even stronger.

  2. whyohwhyohwhy

    Well, this is a statement, isn’t it. As you’re probably aware (don’t hate me) this is the first RTJ work i’ve owned (free album, yes, donation, yes). I love hip-hop, but I’m far from the immersion the rest of you three have. RTJ are artists that I’ve been aware of for a while, both through you guys and also via things like youtube, 6Music, recommendations, but I’ve never really dived in up to now. The thing is – and I’ve done this to death – with a little one in tow now and precious little spare time for listening when I have no other distractions, hip-hop has really taken an unfair back seat. When I’m working I swear by electronic music – everything from modern techno to house, ambient stuff (Donnacha Costello’s albums are a particular solace for me at the moment) and when I work the more lyrics, the harder it is to focus on both the work and not the music. So when you have hip-hop whose lyrics and message are so clear, whether it’s RTJ, Apollo Brown, Rapsody, or even older favourites like De La or Tribe, I just can’t find the time or headspace for it amongst radio, podcasts, working from home…. This album is a clear argument I’m wrong.

    I come to this without much knowledge of the backstory or background of Killer Mike or El-P, but perhaps that’s good. Because I really only have reference points of recent news, none of which is more powerful than Killer Mike’s incredible address on Atlanta new after the killing of George Floyd (here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vy9io6VEt58). And a clean slate means I feel pretty impartial, at least musically. It may be said it’s hard not to approach this without any of the current issues of racism and police brutality washing around it, but it should be difficult to separate it, because this album speaks to all of these things and more, and it feels as important as any news story. It’s a brutal, vital, focused, angry, intelligent piece of brilliant music. From the first listen it hits you square in the jaw, but as Nolan and David have said, when that’s sunk in, and you’ve had a chance to listen to the lyrics and the intensity and forethought they’re delivered with, it’s hard to walk away. This is an album very much of its time, very much in the eye of the storm, and it’s vital that there’s music like this out there. In a world where many poor or working class music and artists are being quietly disenfranchised, and their voices diluted and lost, it still feels like hip-hop has the ability to deliver that knockout right from the centre of the story.

    It feels almost impossible to separate, in fact, this album from what’s going on. Nolan makes the point that RTJ have always been making music like this, but I don’t have that reference point, only the reaction that this has left a real mark on me. Sometimes music hits the note of the nation and that seems undoubtedly true of RTJ4. None more so than JUST, with its searing ‘the 13th amendment says slavery’s abolished, but look at all these slave masters posing on your dollar’. I can’t think of many more searing lyrics than that in any album I’ve listened to since Public Enemy. There’s so much in there that sticks with you, from direct references to Floyd (‘I Can’t Breathe’) to the ‘Never forgetting the story of Jesus, the hero was killed by the state’ in Walking In the Snow. There’s such power in every song. It’s a lean, verbal and musical assault. The beats and hooks are immense, and creative, and clever, with a great set of samples (ooh la la, of course, but more) and musical wizardry that elevates the lyrics further. Musically, and lyrically, it’s pretty much perfect.

    But if we talk about the current situation that the brutal killing of George Floyd feels like has finally broken the dam, we also need to talk about us and this music. We’re four white, straight, middle class guys that like all sorts of music, hip-hop, electronic music, rock, pop, folk, all sorts. But there’s an undeniable uncomfortable truth too: we’ve absorbed so much music from people of colour over the years, listening to their struggle – if we talk about the black community, from Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin’ On’ through Gil Scott Heron, Public Enemy, B.I.G., the likes of Fela Kuti, up to RTJ and others now – and we’ve loved the music, but have we really listened? We’ve – the record companies, the industry, the white record-buying public – got rich off it, hailed great albums, devoured their videos, but what have we really done? Like many questions being asked now, these are uncomfortable and in many cases, new. But they must be asked. How much have we acknowledged and helped with the struggle, when all we’ve done is buy the music and appropriate the culture? How can we change this? What can we do, now, to finally move things in the right drection: because as the majority, if we don’t change, then nothing will change. RTJ4 is a rightly uncompromising and uncomfortable listen. And frankly, it should be, to us. However we may think we support minorities, it’s clear now that we aren’t doing enough and never have, and so these lyrics, these songs, appear more prescient than ever. More important. More in need of not just listening but acting on. If this is a moment of reckoning where (white) society reappraises the impact of its privilege on others, then it’s long overdue. So in listening to this any many other pieces of music, perhaps we’ll reappraise how we do that too, what it means, and what we do about it when we’ve listened. Because inaction – as we all must now know – is just supporting the racist, oppressive structures that RTJ and many others push back against.

    The closing track – A few words for the firing squad – finishes with such power and menace, with the jazz sax and climbing, urgent strings. ‘This is for the never heard, never even got a motherfuckin’ word’. That’s as good as message as any on what’s already feeling like a really important work.

  3. misterstory

    Shit. Is the most universally acclaimed album on the blog? I think it might be? Getting to respond last is always a mistake as most of what you think has already been said. I agree with pretty much everything that’s been said. It’s a great album. I’ve listened to this more than any other album this year. As it’s so digestible, at 39 minutes, I always consume it whole. And start to finish it’s a proper, proper album. It even works perfectly on loop. I think the sequencing of the tracks is spot on.

    However, I don’t think it’s the best RTJ album. I think it might be 2nd best and had it come out in less epoch defining times I don’t think it would make the gut punch impact that it has. But, it has and it does. Had RTJ had any understanding of the environment in which it would be released I think they would have turned up the rage. At least I hope they would have done.

    There is something about Zach De La Rocha guesting on RTJ tracks, I kind of want him on every track. When I saw Pharrell was also guesting on JU$T I was a bit ‘WTF’ but then I heard it and … sorry Pharrell, I underestimated what you could sound like on an RTJ track. Wow. But as you’ve all said, there is no weak track. The final 2 tracks, ‘pull the pin’ and ‘let’s hear for the firing squad’ are perfect ‘hip hop album tracks’, they’re innovative, sharp as a fucking razor blade and sonically massive. They balance the bangers and are so far from filler it’s untrue. I love it.

    Maybe this is the best RTJ album after all …

  4. Guy Hornsby

    God, this album just gets better and better. It’s so dense, and enveloping, and on each listen you get something more out of it. I stand by everything we’ve said on the blog. It’s a singular piece of work that hit the moment in all the right ways.

  5. Pingback: We’ve done a podcast | This Is Not Happening

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