opinion byDERRICK ROSSIGNOL
The ubiquity of the internet is a musician’s blessing and curse. Reputations are built and brought down in the time it takes to check Twitter; along with mansplaining, pets and the 1990s, people will talk about music online until their laptop batteries run dry. Even by modern standards, Death Grips’ career has been endlessly dissected on the internet, which could have been an issue for a group so devoted to maintaining an aura of mystery and uncertainty around their goings-on, but despite the unbroken focus and sleuthing of indie music bloggers, nobody ever really knows what the hell they’re up to.
For the record, here’s what we know: In June 2014, they announced The Powers That B, a double album set to drop sometime in 2015. The first disc, Niggas on the Moon, was also made available for free download that day. Less than a month later, the group took to Facebook to announce that “we are now at our best and so Death Grips is over,” adding that all upcoming tour dates are no more but Jenny Death, the second half of their hotly anticipated double album, is still on its way.
So that’s it, then. Once The Powers That B is out, so too is Death Grips, the wild experiment in alternative hip-hop, unconventional release methods, less-than-respectful record label interactions and confusing live appearances, through all of which sonically adventurous 20-somethings vicariously stuck it to the man.
Except not, because as is tradition, Death Grips surprised everybody by releasing a new album on January 4, not one of their aforementioned upcoming releases, but instead a “New Instrumental Full-Length Soundtrack” called Fashion Week. Aside from the obvious shock that comes with the resurrection of this decade’s most subversive and divisive band, probably the most fascinating footnote is that this unheralded record, or at least an early version of it, was actually posted on Reddit four months ago, by a fan who happened to be on producer Andy Morin’s website during the few seconds when a .zip file containing the tracks was accidentally uploaded. Skeptical fans had the fair reaction of ignoring what was more than likely a troll-posted fake, but their logic led them to miss out on the unlikely scenario.
Now that the dust is starting to settle, what we have is 48 minutes of new Death Grips, and there are a few immediately observable nuggets of information to process. They deliberately called the album a soundtrack, so it’s possible this has something to do with the feature length film drummer Zach Hill is reportedly working on, which is to be soundtracked by Death Grips. The track titles follow the formula “Runway [letter],” and in order, the 14 song titles spell out JENNYDEATHWHEN, further building anticipation for their supposed swan song. Most importantly, as it is instrumental, frontman MC Ride, an important element in Death Grips’ idiosyncrasy, is silent.
What’s important to note is that although their enigmatic vocalist took the day off, it doesn’t feel like anything is missing. This is by no means an incomplete album. The group strips themselves of arguably the most important part of their peculiarity, but shows off their robust multidimensionalism by not sounding like a watered down derivative of Death Grips, instead using the newly open sonic space to further concentrate the formula.
Opener “Runway J” establishes the standard early, still coming off propulsive yet jarring, demanding effort before a groove can be settled into, and the record continues much in this way. “Runway H” (track 10) is still a pleasantly disorienting cresting carnival ride. The seeming airiness of the bells atop industrial percussion and creepy deep pads in “Runway W” highlights the push and pull between light and dark that have been paramount to Death Grips’ aesthetic. They even manage to channel their best Taylor Swift impression on “Runway H” (track 12), which, with its relatively lightweight drumming, bright breathy synths and guitar provided by Tera Melos’ Nick Reinhart, is damn close to a Top 40 pop song, but there’s enough black energy to shake that idea off. This all comes together to prove that hip-hop has come a long way, and like all previous major strides in the genre, Death Grips are not immediately or easily understood, but history will remember them as innovators and a major step forward.
In hip-hop’s beginnings, it was a platform for the downtrodden to voice minority opinions that would have otherwise gone unheard due to the lack of medium through which to communicate them, a new invigorating form of expression, and a way for the disenfranchised to have an impact on the system that governs their lives. While not in the same political sense, Death Grips have used their music to accomplish that feat as well. But since the start, hip-hop has evolved tremendously, from soapbox of the meek to the most instrumentally adventurous genre in modern music. That’s why it’s fantastic when great hip-hop artists release instrumental records and highlight the oft undervalued side of their craft. El-P (most notably nowadays of Run The Jewels) has put out severalhigh-gradeinstrumental records in his day, and more similarly to Death Grips, Beastie Boys’ next-to-last album, 2007 often forgotten The Mix Up, was a wordless acid jazzy hip-hop trip that’s in the upper echelon of their discography.
As for Death Grips, this might be their best album, in the sense that it feels more complete and narrative than anything preceding it. Maybe it’s the lack of primal, not-immediately-sensical vocals or the relatively grit-free tone, or perhaps its the bias of appreciation from a new and unexpected aural quest.
Fashion Week asks more questions than it answers, or rather, it leaves an important question hanging in uncertain air: What does this mean? Is Death Grips actually done? Does the vague, ragtag tour announcement posted by a supposedly official account in December have legitimacy? Or once The Powers That B is complete, is it truly over? Have we really woken up from the Death Grips fever dream for the last time?
Even in life after band — or perhaps not — they have succeeded in sparking conversation while leaving the veil over their public-yet-oh-so-private operations. In an industry that is shying away from its established norms more now than ever, Death Grips have taken the mold and replaced it with a seeming disinterest in their public perception, challenged definitions of terms like retirement and art, and, among other seditious matter, a bathroom photo of a Sharpie-defaced dick. B+