You know that spot on your knee that hurts when you push it? It’s not bruised or anything, but it hurts. You press on it anyway. You silently hope the pain’s not going be there on the next press, but it is and, somehow, you relish in the pain that you just wished wasn’t there. It’s not bad after all, the pain, but it’s noticeable. You begin to bargain with yourself, once more, then you’re done, you tell yourself. You give it one last push, harder and more painful than all of the ones before. Of course you don’t stop pushing after the final push. Eventually you find yourself going from your spot-pushed knees to fetal position caught in a meta-existential crisis over why you can’t abide by evolution’s kindly-gifted, longevity-producing aversion to pain. This is Death Grips.
This March, Death Grips released the two disced, posthumous album Powers That B, coming after their controversial disbandment-by-napkin-note in early July. Disc one, titled Niggas on the Moon, was released for free download last summer and faced generally positive reviews. All of Niggas’s tracks feature vocal samples of Norwegian musician Björk, an avid Death Grips fan. Her distinct voice loses its recognizability, but complements Death Grips’s experimental soundscape. Jenny Death, the second disc of Powers That B, is slightly longer than Niggas on the Moon, and definitely harnesses a different energy. While Niggas on the Moon is heavily digital and relatively calmed, to accommodate Björk’s vocals, Jenny Death is energetically voluminous and unexpectedly rock-influenced; Jenny is the stronger of the two. Death Grips’s rock-incorporative approach to this second disc proves to lend something interesting to their sound.
Jenny Death opens with previously released “I Break Mirrors With My Face In The United States.” A music video for “IBMWMYITUS” made its way to YouTube a couple days before the release of Jenny Death. The video, shot from the perspective of various, instrument-mounted, fish-eye cameras, fits the disorienting music well. The album starts in the expected Death Grips style: sledgehammer vocals, heavy handed drums and aggressive lawnmower synths. The implications of the track’s title are rather obvious, and repetitive lyrics intone the track’s theme.
Moving on, “Inanimate Sensation” begins with pitch-climbing vocal samples that remind of the “Hustle Bones” intro. The vocal rhythms in the first verse are playfully sing-songy in the way a shotgun would sing a nursery rhyme and the inflamed synths throb along with a pulse. The song is full of pop culture references. In the last verse, MC Ride, the bands singer, references Guns ‘n’ Roses frontmen, possibly relating Death Grip’s sound to “Axl Rose in a blender” and “Slash on Satan’s Fender,” foreshadowing rock ‘n’ roll themes that come to dominate the latter half of the disc.
For a short while, “Turned Off” gives the listener time to cool off after “Inanimate Sensation.” A tasteful, solo guitar opens the disc’s third track, but when the verse drops, Andy Morin (producer/keyboards) trades his lawnmower for a jet engine and Zach Hill (drums) whales on his crash cymbal. The aforementioned rock themes begin to surface in “Turned Off.” The first verse is perhaps the most interesting part of the song. It deviates away from rap’s overwhelming preference for a four four time signature and opts for a fatal six feel — a nice musical choice that intrigues the time signature savvy and also showcases the musicianship and versatility of the genre defying group. With a Yeezus-reminiscent vocal sample intro, “Why A Bitch Gotta Lie” picks up right where “Turned Off” ends. The two tracks seem to grapple with the similar musical ideas.
“Pss Pss” and “Powers That B” backpedal along the Death Grips spectrum to find the familiar, vibrant, electronic wavelengths. Hill uses an electronic drumset in both tracks and Ride showcases the versatility of his vocals, with a sinister, cynosural whisper during the chorus. The verses are rife with drug references; one verse poetically compares his lyrics to heroin: “These are my gold bars melted on spoons / My junk hits like martial law / You nod like true.” “Powers That B,” the title track, relates what appears to be a form of enlightenment that has come from Ride’s finding “the powers that b” — whatever they happened to “b.” The songs last verse blames the “bads” (misfortunes) that come from critics’ expectations of the group and relates the “price tag” that comes with these so-called bads. Subtle compositional flourishes à la Andy Morin put the cherry atop of this Himalayan, sonic clusterfuck.
“Beyond Alive” goes the wrong direction with the album’s new sound. A brow furling amalgam of sounds, “Beyond Alive” has vacuous System Of A Down style guitar riffs which clash with the track’s industrial components. Thankfully, track seven finds salvation in the last 30 seconds’ brief electronic vignette. This break from chaos can even be described as beautiful — a Death Grip’s rarity. Next, “Centuries Of Damn” does what “Beyond Alive” tries to do, but does it better. The guitar tracks in “Centuries Of Damn” provide a recurring melodic hook that sends the abused listener Blue Öyster Cult vibes and a much-needed melodic foothold.
“On GP” is far and away the strongest track on all of Powers That B. Like the group does on “Turned Off,” “On GP” makes use of time signatures uncommon to rap. “On GP” (general principle) starts big with blaring guitars, but eventually finds itself in many different places, all varying in energy. An intimate ride cymbal and gloomy organ pads set the stage for the first verse, where Ride’s dark lyrics tell of a “nosy bitch” who notices Ride and wants to know what’s up with him. He tells her to “listen close,” because he just bought an “old black rope / Gonna learn how to tie it (and) hang (it) in (his) chamber.” The verse ends with the personification of Death on Ride’s front porch, “itching to take (him).” Finally, Death hands Ride a weapon and “slurs, ‘use at your discretion, its been a pleasure, Stefan,’” referring to Ride by his given name. The verse is heartfelt in a Death Grips kind of way; it’s about as touching as Death Grips gets. Considering the band’s recent decision to break up, these self-destructive words accrue some serious weight. The outro references the song’s title and continues to touch on Ride’s self-destructive tendencies: “All the nights I don’t die for you / Wouldn’t believe how many nights I ain’t die for you on GP.” These provocative words suggest that some general principle indoctrinated their break-up.
If Death Grips has been doing anything well lately, its been their incredible ability to piss people off. Their sudden disbandment, cancellation of future shows and no-show gigs have made the group pretty high on several people’s shit lists. The final track’s title doesn’t help their cause, as it tempts us with a new version something we just lost. “Death Grips 2.0” is instrumental and jarring — a deviation from their usual industrial sound. Abandoning all hip-hop influence, “Death Grips 2.0” sounds like something off Drukqs.
Jenny Death is good. Damn good. While not likely to be their largest commercial success, it is innovative and conceptually dense. Jenny Death serves as something of a eulogy for the band, if the band does really stay broken up. The band will be touring this summer to promote the release of The Powers That B. All things considered, it is questionable as to whether or not The Powers That B will be Death Grips’s final album – I have strong doubts. If it is their last album, it’s a fine note to leave on.