Death Grips – The Money Store
When a bearded, homeless-looking fella appeared in a cheap music video filmed in some grainy abyss and accompanied by beats that bordered on painful not everyone would have guessed they would be releasing a record on Epic the next year.
The thing about Death Grips was they had something dangerous about them; or at least noisy beyond traditional limits. That they sounded a bit like a hip-hop version of Atari Teenage Riot supported the buzz inherent in their relative anonymity and experimental take on the genre.
There were a few of these persona unveiling spectacles last year, not least The Weeknd and Odd Future. But where Tyler and chums laid new ground it was mostly thematic – rape rap and then post rape rap when he decided to respond to the criticism and analysis of his early releases on last year’s sketchy second album Goblin. Not to suggest that’s all there is to them, or downplay the decent material like Bastard, which I loved, but the freshest element of Odd Future was often its subject matter and the mess of controversy around it. The Weeknd on the other hand created something that hadn’t yet been heard in that form, constructed out of existing sounds with a new nihilism.
Despite being relentlessly bleak and unforgiving at times the mixtapes, two of which were stellar, were quite accessible sonically. So as the masks fall, Death Grips, the act least likely to, are on a proper label having done little to tame their sound. The Money Store sees them having more fun and enough people have seen them live to know they probably won’t kill you, fuck your girl and do all your coke (but I cannot confirm this). What this means is even though a lot of the mystery that gave the group their sense of danger has evaporated the sound that delivers the same effect has not.
On their previous release Exmilitary Death Grips had just enough catchy and rhythmically compelling aspects to broaden their appeal beyond the avant-garde. The Money Store brings more of this to the table and is full of “oh-shit-that’s-cool” moments in which a completely unexpected change in a track not only pushes it in a direction you’d never have thought of but actually makes it more accessible. Vocalist Stefan Burnett shouts ever-so-slightly less and sometimes more quietly than on Exmilitary, but the sound here is a development not a departure. Death Grips are still an experimental hip-hop act with aggressive vocals and noisy sound collage production delivered with hardcore punk fury.
Opener ‘Get Got’ begins with skittering percussion and a vocal refrain before the cut-up arpeggiated sample that forms the centre of the track kicks in and builds from there. It’s one of the songs more likely to be heard on the radio; some radio, some place. It still doesn’t sound likely to me, but neither did a deal with Epic. ‘Lost Boys’ is all lumbering, hollowed-out deep drones with brittle percussion reeking of menace and violence. Burnett’s flow doesn’t ride the beat like ASAP Rocky, it drags it bloody and beaten across the track. It feels physically manipulated to fit the vocals.
‘Blackjack’s elemental pounding periodically loses itself in echo, before the distorted bass synths in ‘Hustle Bones’, tearing and burning like an engine, give way to a bright chopped-up sample like a rainbow over the cacophony. The arrangements are intricate but not cerebral; they feel physical. It’s well thought out music that goes for the body and then the mind.
‘I’ve Seen Footage’ projects 80s golden age rap through an abrasive lens, complete with a rocky synth lead in the chorus. The old-skool percussion filtered through distortion is Death Grips having more fun with their sound than before. Closer ‘Hacker’ repeats this magic and is probably destined to be the biggest crossover track on the album. “The table’s flipped now we’ve got all the coconuts, bitch.”
Death Grips have absolutely not gone soft, but there are more instantly memorable elements pushed to the forefront, like the distorted Bollywood sample at the start of ‘Punk Weight’. This renewed focus benefits the eclecticism of the record for the most part, without detracting from the sonic aggression that made them unique in the first place. The eclecticism is key to the sound working since alongside their singularly abrasive outline the rest of the music is coloured by shades of rock, metal, 80s hip-hop, dub, hardcore punk, breakbeat. If anything these influences are better integrated into their tracks this time around with less material based on one sample in the way that ‘Eagle Spread Cross the Block’ was a reworking of Link Wray’s ‘Rumble’ (John Travolta’s smack scene in Pulp Fiction).
The trimmed track lengths also improve the album as there were several points on Exmilitary, like ‘I Want it I Need it (Death Heated)’, when you became aware how many times you had heard one good idea repeated. It makes The Money Store is feels like a leaner and less messy record. Perhaps the harshest criticism of the album could be that some of the steadier tracks don’t immediately grab you as much as others. It perhaps doesn’t have a moment as dramatic as the opening to Exmilitary’s ‘Beware’ or a track as singularly aggressive and minimal as ‘Takyon (Death Yon)’, but it is a more varied and colourful record that flows and straddles genres better than its predecessor.
With a few exceptions we haven’t had the strongest year for album releases, but 2012 was itching for an album like The Money Store. The fact it’s coming out on a major is something else. And there’s another one coming out later this year. It’s more than the best hip-hop album so far this year, you couldn’t in all seriousness reduce it to just a rap tape, it’s the ugliest pop record of 2012.