While the layers of their enigma are gradually peeled away, Death Grips still show how relentlessly messy and fascinating they can be on their first double-album.
A mere four years after their first release, everyone has Death Grips pretty much pegged. Despite continued attempts to surprise both their audience and the unsuspecting public, they’re no longer the provocative enigma they once were. In fact, they’re less mystifying now than they have been at any other point in their career. We’ve seen it all -- abandoned live shows, album leaks meant to undermine their label, an erect penis on their cover art; for the most part, the puzzle’s been solved. It explains why their most recent PR stunts have come off so shallow and, as a result, lost any shock value they may have once had. The split releases, the “break-up”, the ineffectual Fashion Week drop -- it all just betrays the fact that Death Grips really are just making everything up as they go along.
In the wake of their increasingly esoteric antics, more innocuous now than ever, it should be evident that Death Grips aren’t quite the artistic masterminds they’ve been so furiously hailed as by an ego-stroking press. Death Grips, from the music to the personas, are a bit of a mess. Fans will tell you that the band’s torpedoing career is a subversion of modern music celebrity culture, and that’s a fairly apt reading. But for everyone else, it’s hard to know exactly what to do with Death Grips in 2015. The gears in the machine have finally eroded and unlocked, and now they’re just spinning aimlessly. Putting the pieces back together might be exhilarating or tedious, depending on your disposition.
Luckily, with the full reveal of their double-album The Powers That B, Death Grips are once again forced to let the music speak for itself. The album may very well be the group’s grainiest and most impenetrable release yet, strung together with more abrupt edits, violent, arcane raps and disjointed rhythms than even their most abstract previous work. There are alterations and new diversions, but for the most part, this is the Death Grips we’ve known since the beginning; the greatest difference now is our perception of them.
Disc one, Niggas on the Moon, puts MC Ride in a new universe of dense, repetitive samples (mostly inexplicably sourced from Björk), erratic electronic sounds and start-stop drums, resulting in some of the rapper’s most rhythmically interesting work. The glitchy urgency of “Billy Not Really”, “Have a Sad Cum”, and “Fuck Me Out” merge with the heavier and slower tracks like “Up My Sleeves” for a well-rounded set while the melodic samples add new levels of both complexity and catchiness to the band’s typically atonal music. “Black Quarterback” is both one of the album’s most interesting tracks musically and structurally and also one of the best examples of the compelling depth that comes with the addition of a pinch of melodic color. Overall, it’s one of the band’s most convoluted designs to the naked ear, but anyone willing to piece together the rhythms and melodies as they go along will be rewarded with an excellently focused effort from one of the most scattershot artists imaginable. If last year’s initial response is any indication, though, part one of The Powers That B isn’t likely to become a fan favorite anytime soon.
In contrast, those who have ever found themselves appreciative of the Death Grips sound will immediately connect with Jenny Death. It begins with “I Break Mirrors with My Face in the United States”, a song with the feverish pace of The Money Store opener “Get Got”, followed-up by “Inanimate Sensation”, which features a relentlessly intensifying hook almost directly ripped from Ex Military highlight “Guillotine”. Things get more disparate as side-two wears on: metalcore-indebted “Turned Off” is a rare turn toward convention, “Why a Bitch Gotta Lie” messily blends heavy metal power chords and glitchy electro, “Beyond Alive”, “Centuries of Damn”, and “On GP” experiment with alternative rock textures, and the infectious, straight-forward elegance of standout track “Pss Pss” is supplemented by MC Ride’s overtly provocative, undeniably juvenile lyrics in which the narrator’s urine plays a central role. The point of all this, of course, is to prove that Death Grips are more inaccessible than ever on Jenny Death. Perhaps ironically, their fanbase is more likely to embrace it as a result.
Still, The Powers That B, as a double-album, doesn’t exactly cohere. Death Grips commit to a particular sonic palette on Niggas on the Moon while their signature brand of musical anarchy is on full display on Jenny Death. The connection between the two discs is tenuous at best, further evidence that the band’s grand artistic vision is beyond nebulous. To be fair, it is more exciting that way, but the album and the publicity surrounding it come off needlessly convoluted, and it’s harder to enjoy because of it. The Powers That B is a collection of music explicitly without a thesis, and while that’s fine, it’s harder to place in the scheme of things. The record is stacked with attempts to reinvigorate the mystery of Death Grips, but in the end, as with all of the band’s work, it’s merely an irreverent, individualistic sonic experiment. That’s worth plenty in today’s culture, but perhaps not quite as much as Death Grips -- or their fans -- might wish.
Splash image of Death Grips from the band's official Facebook page.