In times of crisis, pop culture often takes on inadvertent meaning, reflecting and refracting the darkness of the times. But few works can manage the eerie prescience of RTJ4, the rowdy, angry, superbly calamitous fourth album by hip-hop duo Run the Jewels, which chronicles a chaotic world in semi-apocalyptic meltdown, beset by police abuse and racial injustice.
The album was released in early June, just days after protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police turned destructive in cities across the country. Although it had been in the works for years, the music seemed like it had been willed into existence as a byproduct of the demonstrations.
In the album’s haunting centerpiece, “Walking in the Snow,” Killer Mike raps about the gruesome spectacle of police violence and the performative online outrage that often seems to follow: “And every day on evening news they feed you fear for free/ And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me/ And till my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe’/ 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.”
The lyrics were so on-the-nose that Run the Jewels member El-P had to clarify that they’d been recorded the previous year—an uncanny reminder that the present crisis actually began long ago.