Unlike many (looking at you, Myth co-founder Giovanni Colantonio), I am not very good at writing about music. I don’t play any instrument, so I don’t have access to that side of the musical language. I know that most songs have verses, choruses and bridges, and occasionally, INCREDIBLE pre-choruses. I’m even slowly discerning the difference between a guitar riff and a guitar solo. But start talking about time signatures or pedal effects or intensive production details and I’m as lost as James Dolan reading a Zack Lowe article. In college, a journalism professor once told me it was both lazy and ineffective to simply label a song “catchy,” thus eliminating half my tricks in one afternoon. Horizontal Myth devotees – meaning people who have read anything here other than the fucking Topher Grace article – may have noticed that at the beginning of the year, a Favorite Albums of 2013 list didn’t pop up alongside our Favorite TV and Films lists (but get ready for a double-dose this December, I swear!) My inability to come up with anything close to resembling a compelling or meaningful thought about Shaking the Habitual may have played a part in that.
All of that is a long way of saying it’s good that I don’t really view Death Grips as musicians. I view them as world-builders, hardcore fantasy authors who just happen to write music in place of novels. Their new album, niggas on the moon, is the first half of planned double-album The Powers That B (the second half, Jenny Death, is due out later this year but could also literally drop as I’m writing this.), and like past Death Grips albums, it dropped without warning a couple of weeks ago. Like all their albums, it’s an enthralling, challenging, frequently jaw-dropping collection of songs – and also perhaps the least conventionally musical thing they’ve ever done. So, having processed it over several listens, if I’m ever going to attempt to write about Death Grips, the time is now. Here’s a very brief lowdown on the basics of Death Grips. They’re comprised of three dudes: drummer and production mastermind Zach Hill, snarling lyricist MC Ride, and Flatlander, who’s basically the George Harrison of the group if George Harrison had only played really intense, screeching synthesizers. They’re generally described as a hip-hop group, but they’re actually every genre ever combined. They’ve proven that every genre ever combined sounds like something your mom would turn off after three seconds on a car trip. They’re known for zany stunts, which range from obnoxious (intentionally no-showing at concerts), to funny (putting a giant dick on the cover of their second major-label album and wondering why L.A. Reid was hesitant to release it), to undeniably awesome (releasing their last three albums with no warning, all for free). Over the last four years, they’ve released five albums, all events and among the most compelling music that any artist is making nowadays (and if you disagree, now seems like a good time to either listen to more Death Grips until you don’t or close this tab.) Finally, at one o’clock A.M. on June 9, approximately three hours after Jon Snow reminded us that mammoths ain’t shit brah, Death Grips ruined my plans of sleep by releasing niggas on the moon.
Forever ago, I wrote an article about Interpol, and noted that a string of sub-par albums late in a band’s discography can adversely affect their earlier music, highlighting flaws in the band’s overarching structure that might not have been apparent the first time through. Death Grips seem to be one of the only bands operating who realize that the opposite is also true – that if you craft each individual work with care and detail (and niggas on the moon definitely does not lack for details), you can influence the entirety of your discography, helping us slowly understand and appreciate past albums in a new light. Whereas most artists view their discographies as a linear flat line, with each album representing only a moment in the past, Death Grips probably sees theirs as an ever-expanding circle. If the band’s best album, 2012’s The Money Store, saw Death Grips operating as gods creating a universe (which, trust me, many of their hardcore fans will argue is literally what happened), every release since then has been a new atom, scientist, or philosopher doing their best to explain what that universe means, even if the answer may remain forever unclear. This approach is enforced by the frequency with which they release records (and their falling out with Epic Records; this project was simply not going to work if they couldn’t dictate their own speed of output), which adds a natural sense of urgency to their perpetual quest for meaning. There’s also the matter of purposefully releasing only the first half of The Powers That B for the time being. If niggas on the moon sounds like the most scattered, fractured thing they’ve ever done, that’s partially because we’ve only gotten half of this particular story thus far.
On the other hand, it’s also because of the music. Featuring Bjork samples on each of its eight tracks, because that’s seriously a natural thing that happens with these guys, niggas on the moon becomes alarming 30 seconds into opener “Up My Sleeve”; there is unrest in Death Grips’ universe, a pervading sense of doom that only intensifies as the album progresses. But if this is the end of the world, Death Grips feels fine. There’s a dark, biting bit of humor cutting through all of these tracks, at times feeling like a Kurt Vonnegut novel he would have wrote during a fever dream. Death Grips have always had a profound love for the way words sound, but could give less of a fuck about the sanctity of what words mean (see: the title of this album, a majority of which was created by this very not black man.) Largely absent, or at least intentionally subdued, are MC Ride’s primal shouts, trademarks of Ex-Military and The Money Store. Whereas he used to be proudly responsible for much of the chaos on display, here he’s suddenly transformed into the stable foundation your ears settle on, leading us through the fluttering clatter of Hill’s Bjorkian beats. It’s probably the most straight-up hip-hop record they’ve done, even as Ride constantly reminds us he’s the most unconventional MC around.
But man, he proves that if nothing else, he’s one hell of a fun wordsmith. Ride’s lyrics are as cryptic and borderline incomprehensible as ever, with sentences sometimes ending unfinished just because. But Ride’s delivery throughout contains more of a wink than ever before, albeit a desperate one (in a good way). This is a man who’s frightened by his surroundings and is trying but failing to tell jokes as a coping mechanism to help keep his sanity intact. There aren’t punch lines – just streams of words that sound funny coming out of a person’s mouth, like a Stefon sketch on Saturday Night Live. “Fucked beyond the Eddy Asner head that wears a sound,” he chants on “Black Quarterback.” He describes himself as a “shitty stripper,” “silhouette lifter,” and a “binge thinner” on the infectiously bouncy closer “Big Dipper.” Then there’s the middle of “Say Hey Kid,” which goes like this: “But what are my people for? Your wife has a lovely neck. But what would my people suck? If they would I could I guess. I guess her neck’s the best. Her neck’s just the best. Hello there, hello there. I’m perfect now and then. John and Shelley are my friends. They know what my people for. They know your wife’s neck’s my cure. No question, I’m sure.” Delivered with a disconcerting calm by Ride, the entire segment is one of my favorite examples of a complete nervous and mental break-down this year, hands down, no question, I’m sure.
Ride is front and center on all eight tracks, which helps his absence throughout many of Government Plates‘ songs make more sense. In hindsight, that album – Flatlander’s turn to shine? – was their calm before the storm record, with tracks like “Birds” providing eerie, spacious, pre-apocalyptic landscapes before the rush of “Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching)” ushered us into niggas on the moon. But now, he’s attempting to walk against the wind in the aural hurricane Hill has created. It’s no surprise that in the album’s most frantic arrangement, “Fuck Me Out,” all MC Ride wants to do is get laid before the apocalypse hits. “Fuck it all, I’m going down,” Ride intones. “Just don’t touch me, just fuck me.” Everything culminates The Wire-style in the album’s penultimate entry, “Voila,” which, like much of the album, attempts to combine every element of Death Grips’ past works, only to be interrupted by Yeezus-esque screams.
Everything comes together seamlessly earlier in the album (the first three tracks flowing together so naturally they seem almost like their own trilogy within the double-album), and virtually perfectly on second track “Billy Not Really,” an easy contender for the best song Death Grips have ever made and, perhaps not coincidentally, the most accessible thing here. If I’ve listened to it an embarrassing amount of times already, it’s because it evokes everything the band does well when all cylinders are firing: an actually danceable rhythm, humor (Is Ride saying “My Bronies?” at the pre-chorus? Probably), a synth-line that would sound almost beautiful if separated from the rest of the track, an earworm of a chorus, sudden diverges that somehow feel natural, goosebumps-inducing drum patterns, an effortless cool, and apparently Bjork. (Note that all of these, minus Bjork, could apply to arguably their most beloved song, “I’ve Seen Footage.”)
It will be interesting if disc two, Jenny Death, can smooth out some of the sharper edges and expand upon niggas on the moon in a way this album does with Government Plates. Though niggas on the moon can be an occasionally unpleasant album by design, some tracks, especially on the back half of this somewhat short (30ish minutes) album, verge on overkill, with tempo changes occurring so frequently that it becomes jarring – and not always in the way intended. But while Death Grips’ worlds aren’t always perfect, thematically or musically, they’re never less than completely compelling.
Have a good weekend, and for the love of Death Grips, have a sad cum, baby.