Run The Jewels, “RTJ4” (Jewel Runners/BMG)
Run the Jewels’ new album, the emphatic, unrelenting “RTJ4,” was released earlier this month, just days after Americans took to the streets to protest the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. It was perfectly suited to the moment.
Rapper Killer Mike grabbed the nation’s attention with an emotional, off-the-cuff speech where he pleaded with angry protesters “not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy,” adding “we want to see the system that sets up for systemic racism burnt to the ground.”
“RTJ4” speaks to the present by drawing on recent history. On “Walking in the Snow,” Killer Mike raps about the costs of mass incarceration and a nation that’s lost its capacity for empathy, rhyming about the 2014 death of Eric Garner in details that also describe the death of George Floyd. “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.”
Run the Jewels are unlikely agit-rap heroes. Hip-hop is supposed to be youth music, but both Mike and his white partner El-P are practitioners in their mid-40s, aiming to make music that speaks to the streets.
They’re succeeding. One of the remarkable things about “RTJ4” is that, on their fourth album, the ardor and the dexterity of their hard-hitting fury don’t sound the slightest bit diminished.
Phoebe Bridgers, “Punisher” (Dead Oceans)
Phoebe Bridgers has kept busy since she debuted with 2017’s acclaimed “Stranger in the Alps.” She teamed with her indie-folk peers Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker for an EP as boygenius, and she partnered with Conor Oberst, one of her emo inspirations, for an album as Better Oblivion Community Center. Those friends also drop in on “Punisher,” Bridgers’ second solo release and one that builds on the promise of “Stranger.”
Bridgers is adept at examining moments of disillusionment or thwarted desire and lacing them with knowing humor. “The doctor put her hands over my liver./She told me my resentment’s getting smaller,” she sings atop muted, pulsing guitars in the quietly reflective “Garden Song.” “I swear I’m not angry,/that’s just my face,” she sings gently, cushioned by strings, in the title track, in which she imagines awkwardly meeting Elliott Smith, one of her heroes.
The album is full of repeated images and lovely melodies — on “Halloween” and “Graceland Too,” especially — but it’s punctuated with songs that open up into something cathartic.
Khemist, “Khemtrails” (Black Baby Digital/Soulspazm Records)
Philadelphia poet, rapper, and musician Khemist is by no means new to the game. His 2012 mixtape, “Death 2 Wack Rappers” (hosted by the Roots’ Black Thought), the noise-jazzy 2019 single, “I Been on a Budget,” and the jittery “Puzzle Pieces,” show off a breezy baritone, a serpentine flow and a darting delivery where smartly crafted phrases speak of enrichment and empowerment against the backdrop of a city welling up in tears.
Khemist also has been part of the city’s literary scene as a workshop leader for the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement, among other affiliations. Add in gentle free jazz, summer choral funk and the righteous rage of the black experience, and you have “Khemtrails.”
Khemist’s sharp and sweet “Khemtrails” — produced by the DYAD team of Philadelphia jazz instrumentalists Micah Forsyth and Anwar Marshall — lovingly follows in the footsteps of fellow Philly rap greats like Thought and Freeway, with lofty dreams and rhyme schemes sparring in a single bar on cuts like “What’s at Stake.”
Musically too, there’s a million vibes crammed into “Khemtrails,” including the rough-rocking look at higher powers (“Sampson”), the Sly Stone-meets-Fela Kuti jive of “Two Up Two Down,” and the spare percussive workout “Upright.”