With a musical act like Sacramento, Calif.’s experimental hip hop trio Death Grips, an interesting, albeit somewhat new observation comes into play. The “you had to be there” of yester-year’s Woodstocks and Beatles on rooftops becomes the “you had to be there” of a leak, an online release. The words are the same, but they become recontextualized in an era started by mainstream artists like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails allowing fans to pay whatever they want for digital music files, configured to repurpose the aforementioned “there” for an online presence over a physical one. Today’s landscape is rife with countless DIY SoundCloud and Bandcamp accounts that allow artists of all genres to follow this same model, from house producer Calvin Harris to vaporwave sensation Blank Banshee.
With this being said, no act in today’s musical blogosphere has an online presence quite like Death Grips. Since their formation in late 2010, the modus operandi for Death Grips became unpredictability. Their entire existence has transcended a standard band’s life cycle to one long performance art project categorized by tension and release, using both the Internet and the real world to carry out a series of stunts that keep fans waiting with bated breath. The group’s dubious actions encompass a series of no-shows at scheduled concerts, spending their funding from Epic Records on an extended stay at the Los Angeles Chateau Marmont, using the Internet to leak their second full-length album, No Love Deep Web, without their label’s permission, and announcing a breakup last July before releasing Jenny Death, the second half of the group’s final album, The Powers that B.
Many longtime fans were held in inexorably nail-biting suspense, as Jenny Death was initially scheduled for self-release by the trio before the end of 2014, only to be pushed back for a tentative major-label release with Harvest Records. At this stage, many had no reason to believe Jenny Death was even completed, given the band’s history of acting on their own accord. To the Internet’s surprise, March 19 saw The Powers that B posted in its entirety to the band’s YouTube account as fans’ nearly year-long cry of “Jenny Death When” on imageboards and forums across the Internet was satiated.
Disc one of the Powers that B, released last June, features eight short tracks that play out like one extended cut over the runtime of 32 minutes. Icelandic pop singer Bjork supplied the band with a series of unique vocal takes that they processed, chopped, and screwed. Percussionist Zach Hill played these takes live in studio on a Roland V Drums percussive synthesizer kit. Disc one’s instrumentals find themselves at home with the frenetic percussion of IDM’s drill and bass or breakbeats by artists like Venetian Snares complimented by the unorthodox presentation of Bjork’s voice as a supplementary instrument. Most of the tracks operate on inconsistent rhythms and jarringly sudden transitions indicative of incoherency and primal rage.
Unlike the outfit’s last full-length, Government Plates, frontman Stefan Burnett, better known to fans as MC Ride, finds a greater presence on the disc’s instrumentals, showcasing a variety of vocal talents from rapping to yelling to spoken word. The track “Black Quarterback” opens with Ride spitting arrhythmic bars before exploding in screams. An identifiable pattern of vocal delivery is often absent, as rapped bars become exchanged for agro screams without warning. “Voila” creates somewhat of an opposite effect, with MC Ride exploring vocal registries in a gradually increasing dynamic. The opening hook is delivered with an almost uncharacteristic poise from the manic emcee. However, each iteration of it becomes increasingly more aggressive until its violent closing.
Disc two, Jenny Death, provides a collection of cyberpunk and hardcore-influenced hip hop tracks. Opener “I Break Mirrors with My Face in the United States” finds the frenzy of Hill’s live drumming matched with noisy synthesizers and MC Ride’s haptic mantra of “I don’t care about real life” to creating a nightmare of derealization, once again suggesting an embrace of the Internet and its online culture. “Beyond Alive” boasts guitar work from Tera Melos’ Nick Reinhardt, with churning power chords that get swapped for an Eastern-flavored lead. Hill’s drumming here and on the rest of the album is closer to Exmilitary, Death Grips’ 2011 mixtape, favoring a live kit over programmed electronics.
Jenny Death also finds Death Grips at a lyrical zenith, an odd shift for a band whose lyrics became fodder for so many Internet memes to dabble in a newfound poignancy. Lead single “Inanimate Sensation” addresses concerns of materialism, namedropping famed classic rock musicians like AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses and lambasting their chosen lifestyles over an earth-crushing drumbeat and engine-revving synthesizers. The second single, “On GP,” poses as a ballad addressing MC Ride’s potential suicide, the line, “Last night, 3:30 in the morning death on my front porch / he turns around hands me his weapon / he slurs use at your discretion / it’s been a pleasure Stefan,” addressing himself directly on a Death Grips track for the first time. “On GP” acts as a point of convergence for the band’s career, effectively melding the band’s DIY punk ethos with a mixture of live and programmed instruments.
The Powers that B is a unique record, but not because three men delivered a record that was speculated by some to never exist in the first place, nor because it is a compelling combination of punk, hip hop, and electronic music. What makes The Powers that B unlike anything before it is that it is the bookend to a storyline that took place both in the real world and online. Zach Hill, Stefan Burnett, and Andy Morin are ostensibly real musicians, existing in the real world, but to many, their extension is the Death Grips mythos spread by the Internet. The strain waiting for Jenny is where that transition from offline to online starts to take hold. In the real world, listeners have to wait for a physical album to be released as opposed to the instantaneous file sharing of the Internet. Waiting a lengthy period of time for something that can be delivered instantly creates enough conflicting feelings to cause an entire fanbase to post the phrase “Jenny Death When” all over the Internet. With the wait over and Death Grips’ discography finished for now, the only action remaining to do is in the contents of their breakup note: stay legend.
Jeffrey Holmes is a third-year student majoring in English and philosophy. He can be reached JH791223@wcupa.edu.