On the heels of Killer Mike’s powerful speech to the citizens of Atlanta, pleading for community organization and an end to American oppression, “RTJ4” was released — a billionaire-destroying, corruption-uncovering, rallying cry for justice in a country desperately seeking a moral compass.
With that speech, you know this album was going to be unflinching in its criticism of the country’s legacy of racism. And given the beautiful shows of slacktivism on Instagram, including posts of black boxes and reposts of the NFL’s statement against racism, the suburbs are receptive as ever for a politically poignant rap album.
But the duo of El-P and Killer Mike are committed to justice in a way many artists have been silent about recently. In an effort to make their music more accessible, the duo made this album free, and in support of grassroots movements fighting for racial justice, Killer Mike hosted a Zoom call to meet with leaders of many organizations to elevate their voices and strategies.
The album’s strengths lie in its inventive beat selection, razor-sharp critique, and close-to-home storytelling. Viewed from that lens, it’s easy to glean a surface understanding of each track, but the true appreciation comes from pulling up these lyrics and reading along. It can sometimes prove difficult to digest the depth of their lyrical ass-kicks while enjoying these knock-your-head-off beats.
The project boasts noisy, bombacious, and rowdy instrumentals designed to keep the thunder rumbling while El-P provides the wide-ranging left hooks just as Killer Mike comes in with his pinpoint right hand.
The most mainstream-friendly tracks are “ooh la la” and “JU$T.” The former rocks a beat with a familiar rhythm; “Lip Gloss” by Hot Mama is overtly recognized in the song’s accompanying video, making for a digestible track without sacrificing the in-your-face noise and criticism fans of RTJ have come to love.
“JU$T” is a collaboration that’s been waiting to happen for years, as Pharrell Williams’s introduction to the RTJ dynasty goes about as smoothly as it could possibly go. Skateboard P fans will immediately recognize the beat as his signature; a rotund bassline and church choir sound effects make for an entertaining instrumental easily tap-danced upon by Killer Mike, while El-P and Rage the Machine frontman Zach de la Rocha serve the toughest bites, sounding like grizzled hyenas yipping about a recent kill.
But with a bit of concentration, “walking in the snow” unveils itself as a longsword of criticism, particularly focusing on police brutality and modern versions of slavery. Nothing can be said that isn’t by El-P and Killer Mike on this one — and that goes for the rest of their critiques on American oppression and racism. Read up on their lyrics if you’re interested because it can’t be done justice in an article.
Something to focus on alongside their strength in criticism is their longevity in the rap game. More directly addressed by El-P but still touched on by Killer Mike, it’s important to take a second to appreciate some of the biggest names in hip-hop that don’t necessarily get appreciated by casual listeners due to a lack of interest in playing the industry’s games. The duo represents some of the best parts about hip-hop as a culture, with El-P’s entrepreneurial spirit and ability to recreate cityscapes with his instrumentals and Killer Mike’s well-rounded talent for rap: he’s got the critical mindset, wide vocabulary, quick tongue, and philosopher reading level that mark the more mainstream GOAT rappers.
But despite all that, they never take themselves too seriously. “the ground below” might not jump off the page as one of the album’s best songs, but their ability to speak on serious issues while addressing their own silliness is one that shows they won’t pretend they’re morally higher than anyone else. A classic rock guitar sample reverberates while Killer Mike states his sexuality honestly; “Not a holy man but I’m moral in my perversiveness / So I support the sex workers unionizing their services,” and El-P flaunts his ridiculous mindset, “I’ll slap a dying child he don’t pronounce my name correct.”
The album’s close is appropriately dramatic, providing ample time to digest RTJ’s lyrical slaughter of America’s elite. Killer Mike takes some time to say goodbye to his recently passed mother and addresses the harsh reality many black activists face, bringing in his wife’s perspective: “I need a husband more than the world need another martyr.” The song reads similar to any of the other conclusions to the first three RTJ projects, wasting no time with refrains and sticking directly to the way El-P and Killer Mike want to be remembered. After a long lyrical pause, the duo is seen away as the “Yankee and the Brave,” sending them off as a pair of anti-hero heroes, donning their baseball mascots as pseudonyms, and sailing off into the halls of the hip-hop Hall of Fame. It’s a comic book ending for one of the game’s best duos.