Ruin in Rhyme: RTJ4 and our Study of Sin

“Instead of Eden, [sin] offers a wasteland full of thorns and thistles. Instead of life, it offers a living death. Life under sin is in every sense a paradoxical life.”
            Geoffrey Bromiley

“Reality sucks dick…”
            Jaime “El-P” Meline

On June 3, 2020—nine days after George Floyd’s death, three years into Donald Trump’s presidency, in the middle of a summer hot with social unrest compounded by social isolation—hip-hop duo Run the Jewels released their fourth album, RTJ4. It is a profound and provocative work, at once bold, profane, insightful, inspiring, and sad. Over 11 tracks, the rappers pour out their righteous indignation over a world in ruin, with outrage and passion, tearing through such issues as police brutality, corruption in leadership, the slavishness of consumerism, and the tragedies of broken homes. In short, the album is a soundscape of our existence east of Eden, a profound and skillful study of sin. A work as provocative as this deserves detailed attention, and perhaps a provocative question: Can RTJ4 teach us to pray?

At first, the “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” sticker might dissuade us from connecting RTJ4 with prayer. But before we write this experiment off as nonsense, consider a consistent theme in the Christian tradition: those who look for grace must also take a long look at sin. The Christian theologian John Owen counseled those who desired an experience of grace to “Load your conscience with the guilt of [your sin]. Not only consider that it has a guilt, but load your conscience with the guilt of its actual eruptions and disturbances.” [1]

Such a deep consideration of sin is bound to be uncomfortable, which might explain why Christians, as well as our broader consumer society in the West, have started to look away from sin. Writing from the secularized Netherlands, theologian Stefan Paas relates an exchange with a former missionary in Africa: “In Africa it was easy to see the evil we had to fight… But here, in the Netherlands, it is so difficult to see what the evil is. There is so little to improve, so little that Jesus can do for us.” [2] In the affluent West, life’s relative ease has dulled the sting of sin and its effects.

This is not just a phenomenon for secular society; Christians, too, have begun to minimize sin. For one example, LifeWay Research’s 2022 “State of Theology” reports that 66% of American evangelicals agree with the statement “Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.” Indeed, in the words of Cornelius Plantinga, though messages of sin used to regularly ring out from Western pulpits, “where sin is concerned, people mumble now.” [3]

The solution is ancient: a liturgical prayer of confession, where sins are laid bare, the congregation views them in their awful totality, and issues a collective “Lord, have mercy.” Throughout history, the church has supplied its own studies of sin, aimed at pricking the consciences of believers and guiding true and proper intercession.

RTJ4 provides believers a vantage into the sinfulness of sin that requires us to respond in prayer. Think of it as a secular version of a liturgical prayer guide, with every track examining a different, tragic aspect of sin, with the particular aim of helping individuals see and respond. Arguably, this was part of their artistic goal. On the day of the album’s release, RTJ included a heartfelt message to fans: “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.” Since their purpose was to help people cope with the burden of brokenness, it’s not a huge stretch to treat this within the purview of liturgical prayer. For Christians, RTJ4 helps us recover the visceral tragedy of sin in its uncomfortable brutality. As Flannery O’Connor famously said, “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” [4] To those whose sense of outrage and lament has been dulled by prosperity, RTJ4 has a startling message: “this whole world’s a shit moat that’s filled to the brim.” (“walking in the snow.”)

The album begins in fiction. We hear a TV announcer’s opening: “This week on Yankee and the Brave…” as the track launches a driving, relentless story of two outlaws trying to escape a horde of crooked police officers hunting them down. Yankee and The Brave (clever pseudonyms for the two MCs, El-P being from New York and Killer Mike from Atlanta) state their mission up front: stay alive, beat the odds, fight corruption, and disrupt the status quo. It’s a perfect opening, brilliantly disarming us and preparing us for a wakeup call: if you think fiction is dark, try reality. The struggle is real, and they mean to expose it:

Yankee and the Brave are here.
Everybody hit the deck.
We don’t mean no harm
but we truly mean all the disrespect.

This fictionalized world crashes into reality with terrifying force. The real world’s dysfunction permeates every aspect of daily living. Over the course of the album’s remainder, the picture of sin goes from bad to worse. If we follow along, imagining this album as a liturgical guide to prayer, each song deepens our felt need to cry out to God.

The next two songs, “ooh la la” and “out of sight” feel like more traditional hype songs, proclaiming the rappers’ skills and trumpeting their integrity as musicians, creating a large and dedicated fanbase even with their underground ethos. But behind the veneer of optimism is a gathering storm. We sense that their role as provocateurs comes as a reaction to a problematic world. Things aren’t as good as they seem; there are “cannibals on this island / inmates run the asylum.” (“ooh la la”)

The weight of this fully lands in Track 4, “holy calamafuck,” an expression that profanely captures the experience of a horrible situation. With a change of beats and a downturn of music halfway through this song, the artists pause to reflect on their success and discover an unsettling truth—their success did not save them from a world of hardship. El-P declares that he comes from a reality “where monsters eat truth.” Killer Mike admits that, even though he has “a big ole house” and “big ole cars,” the scars of a traumatic childhood still haunt him: “I still can’t escape the panic / PTSD streets did the damage.” The album never recovers. From here on out, pain prevails, each song a lament of biblical proportion.

Track 5: “goonies vs. e.t.” — the rappers find themselves standing against the status quo, where even their stereotypical allies reject them: “Now I understand that woke folk be playing…you’ve been hypnotized and Twitter-ized by silly guys” in a world where “any good deed is pummeled, punished, and penalized.”

Track 6: “walking in the snow” — a searing criticism of modern apathy in the face of the nation’s clear problems: over-criminalization, burgeoning prison populations, education inequality, and police violence.

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 whisper, “I can’t breathe”
And you sit there in 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, I wish I could magically
Fast forward the future so then you can face it
And see how fucked up it’ll be

Track 7: “JU$T”—a collaborative song with a killer beat, comparing modern consumerism to a new form of slavery, where people are ensnared by their desires, where the system is rigged to disenfranchise those with the most economic need, and where those in power violently enforce the law without regard for the safety and dignity of those who transgress it, regardless of their own personal situations:

Try to run home, you might run your luck out
‘Cause just when your bases loaded
They’ll roll a grenade in the dugout (You’re out)…
Try to sell a pack of smokes to get food
Get killed and it’s not an anomaly
But hey, it’s just money

Track 8: “never look back,” where each MC reflects on how the past still shapes his life. For El-P, it’s the substance abuse. For Killer Mike, it’s the contradictory messages about marriage he inherited from his parents.

Low on the smokes, grab another pack, go
Pops smoked too when playing piano
Pops, I’m you, it’s funny how that go
Mom, you too, I never could drink slow… 

Mommy…told me never give these bitches my love…
Daddy told me never give a honey my money
Had to ask Daddy, “Did that include Mommy?”

Track 9: “the ground below” is the closest thing to a rock anthem on the album, where the duo struggles to maintain their integrity against accusations and misunderstandings, lamenting that “life a bitch, leave you battered and bent.”

Track 10: “pulling the pin”—a hauntingly sparse song with spare beats, a spoken-word vibe, and a gut-wrenching chorus: “There’s a grenade in my heart and the pin is in their palm.” Depression looms large here, as each MC groans out against injustice, misery, and shattered hopes:

At best, life is difficult, poor and you pitiful
Then every day’s like a satanic ritual
Beautiful soul with a rogue and the criminal
How long must the holy hold onto they principles?
Kickin’ and screamin’ while watchin’ the demons
Collecting the gold and the diamond residuals
My pastor say, “God has promised us paradise
Live a good life, it is pivotal”
I promised my mama that I would stay honest
But I want it all in the physical
And promise I’m honest, I’ll probably be punished
‘Cause keeping that promise too difficult
So picture me red as I sit on the bed
With my hands on my head and this pistol too
Why the fuck must I be miserable?

Track 11: “a few words for the firing squad (radiation)”—a finale for the ages. By this point, the album has been spiraling toward chaos, and this song completes the transformation with a minor-key, free-form jazz saxophone solo following the two men as they desperately hold on to hope. Such hope comes in the form of earthly relationships. El-P: “I am in love with you / it is my only grace.” Killer Mike: “My queen say she need a king not another junky flunky rapper fiend / Friends tell her he could be another Malcom / he could be another Martin / She told her partner I need a husband more than the world need another martyr.” But these relationships only offer a tenuous line of hope. In a world where monsters eat truth, death may be the only outcome for those who stand up for justice. If so, better to face it with boldness:

This is for the do-gooders that the no-gooders used and then abused
For the truth tellers tied to the whippin’ post, left beaten, battered, bruised
For the ones whose body hung from a tree like a piece of strange fruit
Go hard, last words to the firing squad was, “Fuck you too”

With such a stark close, it seems like all hope is lost, but there is a hint of redemption. Following the chaotic sax solo, the TV announcer returns for an outro: Yankee and the Brave seem to make it out alive, with tires squealing in the background, and the first hints of triumph since Song Two. So, perhaps there’s hope, if the heroes live to fight another day. Perhaps…

So, back to our question: can this troubling, uncomfortable rendition of a sin-soaked tragedy teach Christians to pray? At first listen, the lyrics overlap with Ecclesiastes. According to the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, life under the sun is hard. Hypocrites abound. Abusive leaders thrive while the honest suffer. Families are torn apart. And despair haunts the soul like a ghost, whispering of paradise lost. The Scriptures offer us these categories to chart the ruin of sin, and if Christians struggle to fill the categories with concrete images, RTJ4 helps supply the missing elements. Their stories are all too common, and yet removed from the average White evangelical. This album helps Christians load their hearts with longing for the heavenly kingdom of justice, righteousness, and peace.

At the same time, Christian prayer supplies the one thing this album lacks. In our liturgical prayers, the all-important intercession is “Lord, have mercy.” There is a mercy-shaped hole at the heart of RTJ4, which leaves discerning listeners with a longing for just that. Without mercy, RTJ4 fails to overcome what Dr. Carl Ellis terms “ghetto nihilism,” that is, if the world really is that bad, why push against it? [5] Why go “against the grain” of a hell-bent world? Ultimately it is mercy that offers us hope.

This “mercy gap” turns our attention to the Merciful One—Jesus the Messiah, who overcomes sin and brings redemption through mercy. Unlike the brash closing words of this album, Jesus’s last words to his executioners were “forgive them.” With that, mercy triumphed over sin. This is where Christian reflection on RTJ4 comes full circle. The knowledge of sin and the experience of mercy go hand in hand through prayer. To pray honestly, we need a true knowledge of sin. But, when confronted with the reality of sin, we must pray. RTJ4 helps us grapple with the horror of sin. But a faithful Christian response takes the next step, transforming the experience of misery into a powerful intercession with those three, simple words: “Lord, have mercy.”


Suggestions for Listening:

If this is the first rap album that you’re listening to fully, here are a few suggestions to help you get the most out of Run the Jewels 4.

  1. Understand the swagger. The genre of hip-hop emanated from places of suffering and fear, where confidence was required to walk the streets. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “That was how I came to understand, how I came to know why all these brothers wrote and talked so big. Even the Knowledge feared the streets. But the rhyme-pad was a spell-book, it summoned asphalt elementals, elder gods, and weeping ancestors, all of whom had your back. That summer, I beheld the greatest lesson of 88, that when under the aegis of hip-hop, you never lived alone, you never walked alone.” ( Thus, hip-hop’s swagger boasts an emotional goal: it helps vulnerable young folks gain the confidence to survive. This gives context for the magnanimous claims in RTJ4, such as “put the pistol and the fist [the RTJ official logo] up in the air / we are there / swear to God,” meaning, “call on us and we are there for you.” (“a few last words for the firing squad (radiation)”)
  2. Appreciate the history. Hip-hop artists delight to pay homage to the traditions and masters of the past. RTJ4 deftly weaves together many styles and groups. For example, in “ooh la la,” “out of sight,” and “goonies vs. E.T,” Killer Mike gestures toward such hip-hop greats as Wu-Tang Clan and Beastie Boys. The album is filled with references, beats, and cuts from hip-hop history’s greatest. If you’re an outsider to this community, this might feel overwhelming or incomprehensible. At the least, appreciate the fact that these MCs are true scholars of their genre. If you care to learn more, see #5.
  3. Enjoy the lyrical creativity. The album exhibits skilled word play to enhance the humor and irony. In “yankee and the brave, ep.4”, El-P tells Killer Mike that he has to escape, not because of the friendship, but because of a financial obligation: “You still owe me for them Nikes / you do not get to just die” Similarly, to call out blind devotion to optimistic market economics, El-P declares “got a Vonne-gut punch for ya Atlas Shrugged.” Such lines invite us to smile a bit, even in the midst of anger and lament.
  4. Listen once through the entire album with the lyrics open. The physical album includes a lyrics sheet, as does the digital download. Listen through, with nothing more than these lyrics, letting the beats, rhymes, and concepts sink in.
  5. Listen a second time while looking at the lyrics online here. ( This site has user-sourced notations on many of the lyrics. These comments offer helpful cross-references to other songs, interviews, background, and lyrical interpretation, helping listeners appreciate the nuance of each song.
  6. Listen prayerfully. Certainly there will be disagreements with the content. But, with these principles in mind, listeners can let the album have an emotional effect, even with ideological differences. This emotional effect then fuels our own prayers for mercy, enabling us to pray with greater insistence “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” “Lord, have mercy.”


[1] See John Owen, Mortification of Sin, Chapter 11.
[2] Stefan Paas, Pilgrims and Priests: Christian Mission in a Post-Christian Society, 36.
[3] Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, x.
[4] Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, 34.
[5] For discussion of this term, see Carl Ellis, “A Letter to Our Younger Brothers and Sisters,”( and Thabiti Anyabwile, “What Now?”(

Bio: Billy Boyce is the pastor of Christ Church of Arlington, a small Presbyterian church in Arlington, VA. He lives in Arlington with his wife and children and is the author of Outsiders on the Inside: Understanding Racial Fatigue, Racial Resilience, and Racial Hospitality in Our Churches.

Photo credit: RTJ4 press material.