Run the Jewels started as a side project with El-P and Killer Mike after El produced Killer Mike’s record R.A.P. Music in 2012. At first, the power rap duo put out some singles through Adult Swim and created the self – titled Run The Jewels. They actually released it as a free download, which is how I got my copy, and then slowly released singles and an instrumental record. El-P and Killer Mike kept making records and rode the wave of both critical and listener acclaim. There are now four Run the Jewels records and each one has progressively become more political and lyrically tighter; however, El-P’s gift for beats remains….and his propensity for documenting how much weed he smokes. Both of which require fire.
The current environment of calling out white supremacy and marching for Black Lives Matter have long been lyrical themes for Run the Jewels. Black deaths at the hands of police, housing inequalities, education gaps for poor children and race based violence have all been topics the duo has explored in depth. Personal and intimate depictions of the impact of police violence comes through on Early on RTJ 2, while Talk to Me on RTJ 3 brings power and aggression to how the current Trump political environment emboldens white people to vilify black men, women and children. Therefore, it is no surprise that Killer Mike and El-P would return to social and political commentary on RTJ 4. However, the historical importance of RTJ 4 and Walking in the Snow lies in how this track takes current issues of COVID inequalities for black and brown people, systemic racism, police brutality and Black Lives Matter and forces you to deal with them. RTJ is not interested in slick lyrical wordplay. Killer Mike and El-P wield verses like a scalpels, cutting out America’s toxic racist tumour, holding it up to the country itself, until there is nowhere to hide.
El-P returns as the main producer and his gift for musical production and beats is evident throughout the record. Unlike some other tracks on past RTJ records, El-P kicks off Walking in the Snow with a crunchy electric guitar followed by a battery of 70s action horns and percussion. Even though this intro runs roughly fifteen seconds, it gives the track and ominous and urgent tone, which is underlined by deep brass and guitars periodically appearing behind his trademark layered beats. The importance of this intro is how it highlights the urgency of the song’s message. Moreover, the ominous guitar and horns requires that you sit up and listen. Lesser bands would focus on creating an intricate beat, which may steamroll over the lyrics. El-P’s talent is how his production compliments the lyrics and gives them space to stand on their own.
Lyrically, this track is one of RTJ’s best work. Similar to poets like Emily Dickenson, Langston Hughes or Maya Angelou, there are no verses out of place. All the lyrics have a place and a purpose. You never get a sense that verses are constructed to pad out the track’s run time or are self – indulgent. It is this razor sharp message that makes the track less of a song than a call to action. For example, El-P kicks off Walking in the Snow with verses like “Funny fact about a cage, they’re never built for just one group / So when that cage is done with them and you still poor, it come for you” and talks about “kids in prisons.” These verses in the first block of the song show the stark conflicts white people hide behind in order to keep their power. In some ways, El-P points out how destructive this cognitive dissonance is for society as a whole and for those who propagate race based hate; “You helped to fuel the death machine that down the line will kill you too.”
Killer Mike brings his pit bull lyrical delivery to some of the most powerful messages on education inequality and police brutality in hip hop today. His song block starts with; “They promise education, but really they give you test and scores / And they predictin’ prison population by who scoring the lowest / And usually the lowest scores the poorest and they look like me.” In an environment where talking heads on political round tables talk in about vague “systemic racism,” Killer Mike makes the system personal in a way that you cannot hide behind vagaries.
In heartbreaking truth, Killer Mike exposes how white people and those not personally touched by police brutality watch police killings on TV as a form of reality TV entertainment. “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 / Until my voice goes from a shriek to a whisper, I can’t breathe.” Once again, Killer Mike personalises a social issue in a way where the listener is confronted by the heartbreaking truth going on all around him / her. Most emotionally moving and horrific is how Killer Mike explains the impact of this murder TV on the public, “And you sit there in the house on 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 / Replaced it with apathy.”
Near the end of Killer Mike’s first block he punctuates his message with one of the most powerful lines in hip hop this year. “All of us serve the same masters, all of us nothin’ but slaves / Never forget that in the story of Jesus, the hero was killed by the state.” These two lines have a depth and complexity that deserves attention. On one hand, Killer Mike is highlighting how all black people, regardless of how much money they have or how much power they believe the possess, “us” are seen as “nothin’ but slaves.” However, it can also be read that we are all “nothin’ but slaves.” White racists are slaves as well, because they are being used to prop up white people in power who exploit them to continue using the system for their own personal gratification. Even the hero most racists hide behind, Jesus, was killed by the state for his social activism.
Walking in the Snow is indicative of RTJ4’s power and depth. The track itself is an example of production mastery paired with lyrical skill. You can listen to the track multiple times and find new messages that relate to social issues discussed today. Most importantly, El-P and Killer Mike point out political inconsistencies and contradictions using a personal writing style that demands the listener’s attention. Unlike watching TV apathetically descending into inaction, RTJ forces you to engage with the impacts of racism face – to – face without allowance to look away.
Listen to Walking in the Snow