CD Review: Death Grips — Hands On the Modern Moment

Hopefully, Death Grips can keep finding new ways to convey contemporary dissonance, because as it stands now they have now produced four of the most important musical works of the 21st Century.

Cover art for Death Grips' "Government Plates."

Cover art for Death Grips’ “Government Plates.”


On November 13th, 2013 – exactly 13 months, 13 days, and 13 hours after abruptly leaking their sophomore studio album NO LOVE DEEP WEB to various streaming and P2P filesharing sites – Sacramento experimental hip hop trio Death Grips released their third LP Government Plates in the same surprising, out-of-the-blue fashion. Actually, “unleashed” would be putting it more accurately. What with Death Grips providing a set of YouTube videos for each of the record’s 11 tracks and fans in response ecstatically rushing and eventually crashing the group’s Third Worlds website, the evening of November 13th proved to be the most exciting musical event of the year, bar none.

Death Grips’ approach to promotion and distribution is thrilling and mystifying, but thankfully it never overshadows the music itself. What made the outfit’s first three full-length efforts (Exmilitary, The Money Store, and NO LOVE DEEP WEB) so compelling wasn’t the controversy and hype surrounding them. It was MC Ride’s bellowed, off-kilter vocal flow and the misanthropic, often abstract lyricism that dealt with crime, technology, and paranoia. It was Flatlander’s frenetic, noisy electronics and inventive use of samples. And it was Zach Hill’s status as a complex, math rock drumming virtuoso. These talents came together to produce a kind of music that spoke with unusual directness to our modern, increasingly fast-paced, digital age.

Government Plates not only has all of the above merits; it amps every one of them up to the nth degree. This is evident right from the Bob Dylan-evoking opener, “You might think he loves you for your money…,” whose beat harkens back to its predecessor’s opener, “Come up and get me.” But here, MC Ride’s vocals are even more frantic; Flatlander’s production is even more abrasive, and Hill’s acoustic percussion is more up-front. It serves as a head-spinning sonic overload of an intro, foreshadowing this album as Death Grips’ most frenzied project to date.

Things appear to mellow out a bit on the second track, “Anne Bonny,” its hook a fittingly druggy, cloud rap-esque instrumental that backs MC Ride as he raps about being high on hydrocodone. But this gives way to a crisp, rickety industrial hip hop beat and perhaps Ride’s hardest, most braggadocious verses to date. This is followed by the Showboys-sampling “Two Heavens,” another album highlight, perhaps containing the most infectious hook on the record.

But then we get the first of the album’s handful of quasi-instrumental tracks with “This is Violence Now (Dont get me wrong),” a song that has MC Ride taking a backseat to Flatlander’s wild production, which with its lasering synth and high pitch-shifted vocal sequence wouldn’t be out of place in a mixtape or playlist alongside a piece of wonky electronica. (Flying Lotus’ “Putty Boy Strut” comes to mind, strangely enough.) While Death Grips hasn’t really dabbled in instrumental tracks since Exmilitary (namely the interludes “Cut Throat” and “5D”), points like this – as well as “Feels like a wheel,” “Bootleg (Dont need your help),” and the gleaming title track – manage to be just as detailed and earwormy as the LP’s more “substantial” cuts.

“This is Violence Now” is essentially a transition into the album’s centerpiece and lead single “Birds,” a multi-phased song characterized by warped string samples and a set of atypically sedate verses from MC Ride, whose cadence and lyrics here sound as though they were lifted from some sort of twisted children’s book. But this song, again, has a hook that you will simply not be able to get out of your head. Setting MC Ride’s distorted refrain “I got tomorrow coming” against a manipulated, whining (what sounds like a violin) might not seem like a good idea on paper, but Death Grips has a remarkable ability of being able to make music that might seem superficially abrasive, but is also very catchy.

Maybe the only point on Government Plates that doesn’t quite dazzle is “Im Overflow.” MC Ride’s vocals are particularly raw and in-your-face here, but his sparse lyrics work against the track somehow, and the whirring synth textures aren’t incredibly interesting, either. Still, the track supplies a lot of fun, though it doesn’t feel out of place in the context of the album’s cold, frenetic modern sound. The pulsating, wood block-heavy “Big House” marks another relatively laid-back performance from Ride, with considerably more captivating results.

But Death Grips saves the best for last with “Whatever I want (Fuck who’s watching),” which is their most ambitious song to date, as well as their most moving. Its verse’s dancey, arpegiatted synth sequence, coupled with MC Ride’s unusually bouncy inflection, comes off as uplifting despite Ride’s lyrics being as misanthropic as anything he’s penned in the past. You get the sense that touring with Björk left an impression on the band, at least until the backmasked drums, droning synth, and echoed, grunted vocals of the hook burst in. It’s actually a kind of beautiful way to close out the album, although Death Grips has most likely warped your concept of beauty by this point.

Government Plates is at once Death Grips’ most raw, chaotic, and varied album to date. Thus, even more than the band’s previous efforts, the disc clearly conveys the band’s challenging view of modern times. Given their tactics, in terms of promotion (a deep web scavenger hunt) and distribution (personally leaking their own material), Death Grips has probably embraced technology and new media with more savvy and enthusiasm than anyone else in the field. Yet what comes through in their music is terror and paranoia rather than unbridled optimism. But it is that uneasy tension that expresses our present situation – rapid technological advancement is both wondrous and frightening. Hopefully, the band can keep finding new ways to convey this dissonance, because as it stands now they have produced four of the most important musical works of the 21st Century.

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