Wednesday, June 27, 2018

album review: 'year of the snitch' by death grips

So here's my biggest observation when it comes to Death Grips from being appreciative of their sound but mostly outside the fandom: at some point Death Grips was going to take a step outside of their frequent trolling and just outright alienate or drive away the audience. Hell, you could make the argument that way back in 2013 they already did this with Government Plates, and while the Death Grips fandom has an impressive tolerance for bullshit, if Jenny Death had not been as strong as it was, I'm not sure they would have gotten away with so much for so long.

And the other unfortunate factor is that Death Grips really aren't the only ones pushing the boundaries in this space anymore - noisier hip-hop is far more common and accepted than it used to be, and while I'd argue Death Grips are still relatively close to the cutting edge, even fans were noticing ground was starting to get retread on Bottomless Pit - which, for the record, is an album I still quite like to this day. And yet even with that, the initial buzz I had been hearing for Year Of The Snitch has been... mixed, to say the least, with no clear consensus surrounding what may have gone awry this time. And thus I had very little idea what was coming on Year Of The Snitch, even despite what one could argue is one of the most traditional and straightforward rollouts for a new album Death Grips has ever had, so what did we get?

So this record is... odd - and it's odd in a way where I'm not surprised that Death Grips fans have been more on the fence about it than ever before, because it almost seems like it was designed to get under their skins more than anyone else. I'd like to say that this is the album where Death Grips becomes self-aware, but the truth is that they've always been self-aware about themselves and their fanbase, and you could definitely read this record as a natural continuation of themes established on what was built in Bottomless Pit. But where that record had more of a balance between apathetic contempt and traditional Death Grips nihilism, Year Of The Snitch pushes both sides of that balance further than ever before before we get to a truth that might as well deconstruct everything Death Grips has put on record.

And the interesting thing is while Death Grips takes their time getting to this place, they lay the foundations as early as 'Death Grips Is Online', with lines right after the title implying how much they gorge themselves on their cult of personality and have reaped considerable rewards. And while there's always been a fleshy, debased hedonism that's run through Death Grips, this might seem to be the first record where they might be enjoying it, or at least the headlilne rush that comes with getting it. But this raises an inherent contradiction, because Death Grips and MC Ride specifically have built their careers out of wild, unhinged paranoia, depression, and nihilism, with Jenny Death being the most explicit case of artistic suicide and dark rebirth I've seen on a record in the 2010s... but holding the balance between that and the euphoric rewards of success is a dangerous game, and it highlights a very dangerous lie at the core of Death Grips' most recent output. Compare how MC Ride describes death and decay on previous records to 'Flies' - what might have been bloody and feral is now ossified and rotting and stagnant. And thus the satanic flourishes of 'Black Paint' almost feel token, or how there's real tension getting mined on 'Linda's In Custody', a reference to the key witness who resulted in the conviction of Charles Manson. So they know their time is limited, and thus the midsection of the album becomes a groteque hedonistic shitshow - they literally called a song 'Shitshow', but you can tell it's starting to wear thin, mostly because Death Grips are very much aware their brand of success has never been as opulent as other contemporaries - go to 'Hahaha' and the flexing is almost a parody! And thus they are left with a dilemma - aptly captured by an intro from the director of the first two Shrek movies because of course they're going to play into the meme, but the album gets pretty real around 'The Fear', because it's a song that is screaming for them to actually take that leap and kill something... and he doesn't do it. It's an ending that expects you to be disappointed and say, 'what, that's it' - and then after the outro track Death Grips comes back to fill in that blank. They know what their cult is going to think about this, so they outright give away the game more than they ever have before - if there's a snitch, it's Death Grips snitching on themselves and laying bare exactly what the fans have invested in, taking their own meme and turning the joke on you.

Now I'll say this outright: I'm a sucker for this sort of recursive, self-aware middle finger to the audience, especially as it shows how smart MC Ride is in deconstructing his genre and art, and a record like this takes real courage, because I don't know how Death Grips continues their traditional style after this. Granted, some of my appreciation comes from being just a casual fan, but given how I was more invested when Fall Out Boy did Save Rock And Roll and Nine Inch Nails did Hesitation Marks - the latter being the nihilistic deconstruction and the former being the middle finger to the fans - I just appreciate the artistry of it all. Now that being said, there's a method to approaching this in a way that doesn't compromise the sound, and if there's a place where Death Grips seriously stumbles, it's here. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate how so many of these songs are simply Death Grips sampling themselves, to further drive home the recycling of ideas, and I can even get onboard with the increasingly ragged and disjointed hardcore punk elements rammed in when it comes to song structure and cadence, which is close to the most slapdash it's ever been. But one of the trickiest things with deconstructive art is ensuring the art actually is of quality... and man, Year Of The Snitch is uneven. Part of this is MC Ride - continuing in the wake of Bottomless Pit his bellowing is more restrained than ever, which might fit the increased feelings of alienation intended for the fans, but also mutes the biggest focal point of charisma for the group and his detached monotone just isn't as interesting, especially when the vocal filters are stacked around the gummy gloss of the keys and rock elements trying to surge through, like the waves of borderline tremolo riffs on 'Death Grips Is Alive' or the curdled roar of the metal riffs on 'Black Paint'. And I'll freely admit when this album gets more guitar-driven like on these songs or with that main noisy riffs behind the hooks of 'Ha Ha Ha' and 'The Fear' or the lo-fi curdled melody bouncing off the melancholic synths of 'Dilemma' or even the wonky bounce of 'Disappointed', they're by far my favourite moments - calling back to the noisy heaviness of Jenny Death is a winning formula! But then you get the damp splotches of synth and the shambling trap skitter of 'Flies' or the lo-fi atonal glittering whirs of 'Linda's In Custody' that can never land on a stable groove, or how fragments like 'The Horns Section' and the flagrant hardcore 'Shitshow' don't really add to much beyond Zach Hill's pretty killer drumwork, or the synth-heavy 'Streaky' which might be the closest thing Death Grips has come to embracing mainstream meatheaded glitchy hip-hop - it never hits a point I'd consider outright bad, but Death Grips recycling can get tiresome. And I'll say it, the fusion of these synths with thicker walls of guitars in more of a punk setting is not revolutionary when White Lung beat them to it with Paradise two years ago, and that band actually bothered to include stable hooks and grooves.

So as a whole... I kind of wish I liked this more, because for as much as I really dig the main concept, the execution is haphazard. And for as much justifiable praise as Death Grips gets for experimentation, when they double down on pulling from earlier projects, as much as I get the thematic point it's not really boundary-pushing when you're just going back to the boundaries you pushed! As such for me I'm giving this a very solid 7/10 and a recommendation for Death Grips fans more than anyone - if you're not on board with this group this record will not change your mind - but I also expect this to be pretty polarizing for that audience. And while I appreciate it, I think I'm a lot more interested in where Death Grips goes from here, because once you burn and salt your own genre, you're in uncharted territory.

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