Wednesday, April 1, 2015

album review: 'the powers that b' by death grips ('niggas on the moon'/'jenny death')

Ever since I started talking about hip-hop on this series, I've been asked to talk about Death Grips in some form. And I've been delaying it for a while too, mostly because in hindsight, Death Grips has gone on to be surprisingly influential in underground and even fragments of mainstream hip-hop in crafting a noisier, nastier, more industrial sound that has touched everyone from El-P to Doomtree to Kanye West. But I haven't really talked about the wild trio responsible for this sound, who rose on a wave of critical acclaim and a cult following to land on a major label... where everything seemed to self-destruct until the group fell apart and broke up. Or maybe they didn't, and the group is still together screwing with the minds of their fanbase and any music journalist who hasn't yet realized the chaos and buzz is starting to eclipse the actual music.

Okay, that's unfair, because believe it or not, when Death Grips dropped their debut album The Money Store after the well-received mixtape Exmillitary, there was a lot to like. An explosive, choppy, abrasive brand of production, impressionist lyrics that sketched out half-formed graphic nightmares, and MC Ride's bestial delivery balancing gruff nihilism with deranged paranoia. For the most part, it was pure, unrestrained id with some real visceral punch, and I can't deny it did exactly what it was designed to do... but for me, Death Grips doesn't always connect. For one, I'm not the biggest fan of MC Ride - his delivery works what the music is, but savagery loses impact with me over the course of a sustained album, even despite some eclectic production. As such, even though I'll acknowledge The Money Store being a slightly more cohesive and probably better project, I like more tracks from No Love Deep Web for a slightly more cutting and electronic approach in comparison to MC Ride's usual broad wallop. Then came Government Plates... which was just underwhelming across the board, easily Death Grips' least impressive album and one that started to show the band might be running out of ideas.

But in 2014 they dropped the first half of The Powers That B even amid the rumors of their split, and after a teasing process that frankly has gone on several months too long, they have released the second half, now giving us a full double album of material. And like I promised - and because this might be the last Death Grips release ever - I decided to cover it. What did I get?

Well, it's an interesting release, I'll give them that - and it's definitely better than Government Plates, but the more I delved into this double album, the more I began to feel that it probably shouldn't be a double album at all. Not just because the disks are wildly different in instrumentation and tone, but because the deeper I delve into them, the overlapping themes feel simultaneously more and less alike. Or maybe it's just because the variance in quality between the two records is very noticeable, because Jenny Death is significantly stronger in terms of themes and execution.

To explain, one needs to start with the common elements of Death Grips that remain the same across both discs: namely, the delivery. Now I'll go on record as saying that when MC Ride steps towards more of his 'wildman' style of delivery, it can get a little trying on my nerves - his half-enunciated angry bark  that contorts at his voice has a place, but it gets exasperating trying to parse out. Now to his credit he does switch up his flow and tone enough to show varying sides of his sadistic persona - more muted and methodical, sometimes even going down to a near-whisper as he stares lecherously out of the shadows. Hell, there are even moments on this album where he throws on heavily robotized pitch correction on 'Why A Bitch Gotta Lie', and it actually sounds pretty good.

But at this point the instrumentation between the two discs varies wildly, so let's start with the first one and probably the furthest step away from Death Grips' traditional visceral sound. For as much as Bjork's contributions drew attention, her voice is only recognizable in terms of tone, as they've cut the samples down to ribbons, instead letting the fragments drive the staccato, jittery melodies, and half-formed thin slivers of percussion. The record really does feel the furthest thing from the visceral crunch of earlier releases, even there are plenty of exposed edges and hiss to hint at the noise, but the production doesn't exactly fit the voice of MC Ride particularly well, especially in his more howled tone. What's more, even though this disc is signficantly more melodic, the choice to chop the groove and samples into stuttered fragments doesn't always flow well. That said, there are moments that I definitely did like: the galloping bass on 'Black Quarterback', the spacey slivers of melody on 'Say Hey Kid' - at least before the tempo changes killed the momentum - or the even sharper and choppy 'Voila' punctuated with bestial howls. But as it is, with the more minimalist and staccato instrumentation and production jutting against a voice that has so much more power and presence, it's a record that feels hemmed in and rigid - which might fit some of the overall lyrical themes, but doesn't always fit vocals and flow that are much more aggressive and bestial.

Now Jenny Death is significantly different, and I'd argue a fair bit better. Instead of staccato sampling and drum machines we get sizzling guitars and actual drums, and the mix has a much bigger, meatier feel to it. Death Grips have gotten labelled as punk before, but this is one of the few points I've found where the hardcore edge leaks through in a big way, and it's a great fit. And while much of the tone and themes remain the same - I'll get to this, the overall more aggressive, more organic feel is a much better fit for MC Ride's vocals and the subject matter. Even the synth tones are deeper and have more depth from the warped walls of synth and klaxon-like distortion of 'I Break Mirrors With My Face In The United States', the washed-out noisy, almost post-rock gutar lead-in of 'Turned Off' that breaks into a fuzzy, cymbal-heavy groove, the contorted dance groove with the fuzz-saturated guitars of 'Why A Bitch Gotta Lie', the twisted ramshackle potency of the title track, and the cavernous layered guitar crunch of 'Beyond Alive'. And then there's 'On GP', probably one of my favourite songs Death Grips have ever recorded, built more off a steady guitar progressions, Zach Hill's ruthless and frenetic drumming, and even lo-fi organ interludes into one of the band's most memorable and potent tracks to date. Of course, there are moments that do stretch my patience - I get the appeal of the rising drones of 'Inanimate Sensation', but I find it harder to enjoy than appreciate if only because the otherwise solid and thick drums are drowned out by a melody that sounds like my vacuum cleaner having an orgasm.

And speaking of images you never want to think about again, let's talk about the lyrics and themes of this album. Now some would argue that most of MC Ride's crazed ramblings don't have much of a direct message so much as they paint a very striking picture, but at least on the first disc I wouldn't quite agree with that. The more cryptic, oblique writing doesn't have the same detail, even as the overarching theme becomes significantly clearer: suicide. Which the more you actually think about it doesn't make a lot of sense: sure, it fits the pitch-black nihlism and unrestrained id of this album, the desire to just end it all and throw it all out there in a sullen blaze does fit, but does a character like MC Ride fit the profile of someone who would do that? I just listened through Earl Sweatshirt's I Don't Like Shit, I Don't Go Outside, and that was a lot more convincing - and fairly early on I got the impression Death Grips was screwing with the audience again. To their credit, they do try to make the first disc emphasize that theme, but the lack of detail does mean even the political commentary about how conformist mediocrity can crush spirits and yet the lonely road of savagery can be just as devastating feels a little undercooked. Fortunately, Jenny Death fixes that, and you quickly realize it's not so much suicide but ritualized sacrifice to ascend to a higher form, apotheosis into a higher creature of pure nihilistic savagery. The themes are an echo of the first album but intensified - the outward aggression is more blatant, not so much snide jabs but outright attacks, and the final track tears away the veil completely, with Death himself handing MC Ride a weapon that he then chooses not to use on himself, even as the possibility still lurks.

Now here's the funny thing: while Death Grips is telling a more complicated story here surrounding suicidal themes, many of the overarching ideas haven't changed since the group began. Maybe the paranoia has faded in favour of raw contempt, but the savage individualist nihilism hasn't gone away, which means to some extent this album can wear out its welcome on me, especially considering Death Grips have hammered on these ideas in different forms but with similar writing over their entire career. And that means outside of changes in their sound, many of their records fall into a similar pattern. Hell, Jenny Death is almost a louder mirror of the first disc, except with more of a defined ending suggesting Death Grips' rebirth. Which circles back to the double album concept - sure, they have thematic similarities, but including the two together only highlights the strengths of one over the other, which doesn't help the consistency of the overall album. And look, like most Death Grips projects, I respect it more than I outright love it, although Jenny Death did grow on me a lot and on its own will probably hold up well. But as a whole, the double album gets a 7/10 from me and a recommendation. Fans will definitely love it, non-fans... well, I'd say listen to Jenny Death first, but as an album does gain a lot by knowing Death Grips' progression, so keep that in mind. I don't know what the future will be for this group, but if they were looking for an endpoint, this would have been a good spot.

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