Album Review : Death Grips - The Powers That B (2015)
The rabid success of Sacramento-based experimental hip-hop trio Death Grips is puzzling. Their music has been consistently and undeniably great since their debut mixtape Exmilitary was unleashed upon the internet. They're raw, unpredictable, fierce and original, but they don't exactly cultivate relationships. Death Grips is into exploring boundaries and constantly reinventing themselves. I've been slowly building up a retrospective of their career since I've started reviewing albums and today, I want to discuss their most difficult and enigmatic release The Powers That B. The album eluded several fans and requires more openness and effort than their other records, yet it was inevitable. The Powers That B is the end of a narrative and the beginning of another, which nobody knows much about. Not even the members of Death Grips themselves, who are still touring and kicking ass this year.
The story is definitely not over.
The Powers That B was originally released as two separate albums: N*ggas on the Moon in 2014 and Jenny Death in 2015. The two couldn't be any more different sonically, yet are spiritually linked. The first half of The Powers That B consists of busy, glitchy and abrasive electronic soundscapes that have little to do with their earlier production. The songs don't have a consistent structure and shift tempo midway through. There is no real iconic moment on it, except maybe for the disembodied and terrifying Have a Sad Cum BB which makes Björk's vocals sound like glitchy internet porn. That song have become somewhat of a cult favorite despite being a little hostile to the ear and came to represent what The Powers That B is: a destruction of the idol Death Grips built on their contemporary classic The Money Store.
There are songs on N*ggas on the Moon that stand out for other reason that being crass and hostile. Black Quarterback and Big Dipper have this skipping upbeat tempo and iconoclast aggression we all know and love from the band. The latter is particularly intriguing as MC Ride questions the truthfulness of their artistic process on the chorus: I'm a bullshitter/I'm a shitty stripper/I'm a silhouette lifter, it's a refreshing bit of awkward self-depreciating humor meant to make you feel uncomfortable about taking them too seriously and God knows a lot of people do. There are allusions to death and suicide on N*ggas on the Moon also, which I believe should be taken metaphorically. In Black Quarterback, Ride says that his mind is on his wrist, alluding to suicide as a liberation of the mind from the limits of the body and this is what Death Grips is all about. Refusal of limits. Self-destruction and reinvention as the ultimate form of self-determination.
The Powers That B happens to be the album where they kill their old self, flip the corpse inside-out and create something new and exciting with it.
Speaking of new and exciting things, the second half of The Powers That B Jenny Death is a sonic 180 degrees turn right in the middle of the album. The album is rawer, more aggressive and cohesive than N*ggas on the Moon and lets their punk philosophy poke through their music. There are guitars on several songs here. Beyond Alive is borderline garage rock and Centuries of Damn has this distorted power ballad edge to it. My two favorite songs on Jenny Death are I Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States and the crass Inanimate Sensation, which samples people making motor sounds like 5 year-olds. They're still very much tearing down their identity on these songs, but they feel more honest and open. The most important song on The Powers That B, though probably is On GP where Ride confesses his exhaustion with staying put and contemplating suicide. Nobody knows if he's still talking about the band or himself, but it's a fitting end to a band that had broken up by the time this album was released. Were they being sincere, though? The closing song on Jenny Death, the mysterious Death Grips 2.0 only lead to more speculation.
So, we're in 2017 and Death Grips released another album last year called Bottomless Pit, which was both great and sonically close to their iconic record The Money Store. What the fuck is that supposed to mean? Death Grips have told a coherent story with their records up until then, burned brighter than anyone else and self-destructed in a spectacular way only they could come up with. Is their story bound to repeat itself over and over again? Maybe they're just still having fun making music together. They don't owe us anything. The Powers That B is an exercise in creativity and self-determination. It is the logical ending of a journey the band started with Exmilitary and it doesn't quite make sense if you haven't been through the entire thing. It could not have ended any other way. Will Death Grips keep making music for many years? I doubt it. They will explore whatever ideas they need to explore with the band and go on with their lives when it'll stop feeling dangerous and exciting. And that's why we love them. The journey will always be available for us to listen to and The Powers That B will always be the glorious self-immolation they concluded on.
Standout Tracks: Have a Sad Cum BB, Big Dipper, I Break Mirrors with My Face in the United States, Inanimate Sensation, On GP