One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations feature. In each edition, find one more thing from the world of culture that we highly recommend.
Scenes from riots, stories of police attacking people of all ages and races, videos of unwarranted arrests — they’ve all dominated every facet of social media for weeks now. They are irrepressible, as they should be; Americans should be forced to reckon with the disturbing reality of our country’s race relations. But these images and news items are also disheartening, even dystopian. Right now, life in America feels lifeless. And that’s true even if you don’t factor in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Among the many people pouring their hearts out about how deeply affected they are by the violence happening to black and brown Americans is Run the Jewels, the rap duo of “Killer” Mike Render and Jaime “El-P” Meline, whose work has always been politically charged. The pair has won multiple album-of-the-year accolades and been heralded as “role models” for listeners and other musicians, “a leading light in a new hip-hop counterinsurgency.” When Run the Jewels’ fourth album, RTJ4, was announced as an early June release, music fans hotly anticipated what they expected would be another slam-dunk collection of darkly funny, searingly poetic songs.
Then the March deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor incensed people around the country, making a new release from the pair feel especially necessary. That feeling only increased as protests broke out nationwide in May in response to the police killing of black Minneapolis resident George Floyd.
A week before the album’s June 5 premiere, America seemed to collapse under the weight of racial inequality. Public shows of support for Floyd’s family, community, and all black Americans turned from powerful to horrifying, as police brutalized protesters in needless attempts to tamp down on crowds. Run the Jewels, infuriated and deeply hurt by what they saw, spoke out.
First, Killer Mike previewed some of the most resonant lyrics from the album on Instagram. “I will keep pushing for a better society but I refuse to not acknowledge the one I am stuck with,” he wrote in the caption beneath a snippet of the new song “Walking in the Snow.” It’s a prescient verse: “And every day on the evening news, they feed you fear for free / 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.’”
That post came on May 26. On May 30, Mike gave a powerful speech in his native Atlanta, itself home to increasing police brutality. The son of a police chief, Killer Mike spoke from a vulnerable place.
“I’m mad as hell,” he said at a press conference held by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. “I woke up wanting to see the world burn yesterday because I’m tired of seeing black men die. [Former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin] casually put his knee on a human being’s neck for nine minutes as he died like a zebra in the clutch of a lion’s jaw.”
RTJ4 was then released two days early. On June 3, Run the Jewels tweeted a download link to the album and a note alongside it:
Fuck it, why wait. 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.
With sincere love and gratitude, Jaime and Mike.
RTJ4 has indeed sparked joy when it’s desperately needed. It’s danceable, shoutable, rap-along-able, and full of great seasonal bops. But it’s also wildly relevant; though all of the songwriting predates George Floyd’s death, it could have easily been conceived in honor of Floyd’s memory.
RTJ4 puts words to the darkness of America’s systemic racism
“Walking in the Snow,” the song that Killer Mike previewed a week before RTJ4’s release, is a standout that’s most remarkable in how it pins down this moment in time, even before this moment came to pass. “I can’t breathe,” Mike gasps out, hoarse like he’s resisting a chokehold. According to El-P, the song was written last fall in reference to Eric Garner, a black man from Staten Island who was killed in 2014 by a police officer who restrained him with an illegal chokehold. Garner’s death marked an early inflection point in the Black Lives Matter movement, and its reference here is a shocking reminder of how far we haven’t come in the six years since.
The song continues to go in on what feels like another headline ripped straight out of 2020: “And you sit there in the house on your couch and watch it on TV / The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy / But truly the travesty, you’ve been robbed of your empathy.” A large part of the dialogue surrounding the outcry over Floyd’s death has focused on the importance of demonstrable action: through protesting, donating, and staying informed. Twitter and Instagram are powerful ways to communicate a lot of anti-racist sentiments, but as Killer Mike so eloquently raps, they are also easy crutches for performative allyship that doesn’t make progress toward racial equality.
On June 2, the day before RTJ4 came out, the #BlackoutTuesday social media campaign exemplified the complicated nature of broadcasting sympathy online. The hashtag encouraged allies of Black Lives Matter to post an empty black square and nothing else, an effort criticized by many as peak inaction due to how it diluted truly useful BLM hashtags. “The showiness of people posting about how they’re not posting anything has served to derail and obscure actual BLM content through inconsiderate use of the hashtags,” Vox’s Aja Romano explained. “Ostentatious stands by white people and other bystanders have dwarfed conversations and stolen attention from actually informative posts related to the Black Lives Matter movement and protests.”
But RTJ4 broadcasts those conversations as loudly as possible. Killer Mike and El-P are smart, snappy MCs, trading off verses that are confrontational and poignant and funny with unfair ease. They’re the kind of rappers who make you want to be not just as talented as they are musically, but linguistically; they make me want to be more insightful and considerate with my writing, and I’m not out here trying to put any songs together.
The album’s unmistakable relevance is defined by the timeliest songs — namely “Walking in the Snow,” “A Few Words for the Firing Squad,” and “Goonies vs. E.T.,” — but it’s also present in tracks detached from any one event. “JU$T,” featuring Pharrell Williams and Rage Against the Machine vocalist (and repeat Run the Jewels guest) Zack de la Rocha, has a blistering refrain that puts words to one of America’s oldest, most infuriating truths: “Look at all these slave masters posin’ on your dollar.” It’s an anthemic way to denigrate the US for its repeated racial failings. (Remember how Harriet Tubman was supposed to have replaced Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill this year?)
And it’s comic, too, in a very Run the Jewels-like fashion; the idea of George Washington “posin’” anywhere conjures an image of the lanky prez contorting with sunglasses on or something similarly farcical. Run the Jewels reveals that America’s continued racial indiscretions are, though not exactly funny, a longstanding comedy of errors prompted by ridiculous action with fatal consequences. The album contains plenty of these moments of ironic levity, whether baked into songs about harsh topics or at the forefront of other, lighter songs entirely. “Yankee and the Brave (ep. 4),” for example, opens the album with a madcap recap of a nonexistent TV episode where Run the Jewels plays a no-holds-barred crime-fighting duo.
El-P contextualized the pair’s parallel modes of silly and serious in a mid-May interview with the Guardian: “The best thing that could ever happen to the world is if Run the Jewels was just blathering nonsense, if we’re just two assholes who are completely out of touch with reality,” he said. “We don’t want this shit to be on point. It’s because of that truth that we allow ourselves to be completely stupid and surreal on our records as well. We need that, too.”
Maybe it’s worth mentioning here that El-P is white and Killer Mike is black. Any photo of Run the Jewels reveals as much. And RTJ4 underscores the way these two best friends of different races are aligned on the human rights message of Black Lives Matter. El-P’s verses on songs about police brutality and racism and violence don’t feel ham-fisted or insincere; he cedes the floor to Killer Mike when there’s a need to. Both of their voices are necessary, though, and they are best when they are together, elevating each other. They prop up each other’s humor, anger, and demands. Together, they call for an end to the thousands of homicides committed by cops for meaningless and shocking and unforgivable reasons.
When Run the Jewels’ first album came out in June 2013, George Zimmerman was on trial in Florida for killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. (Zimmerman was acquitted a few weeks later.) RTJ2 came out in October 2014, two months after police in Ferguson, Missouri, killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. (The officer who shot Brown wasn’t charged.) When RTJ3 came out on Christmas Eve 2016, black people, indigenous people, and people of color all over America were still feeling raw after November’s presidential election and the killing of Philando Castile, a black man, by Minnesota police in July. (The officer who killed Castile was cleared of manslaughter charges six months later.)
When RTJ5 is ready, whenever that is, let’s hope the accompanying story of our country bucks the trend.