Saturday, June 21, 2014

Death Grips Review

Originally posted on

Death Grips
Niggas On the Moon 
Self-Released (

Niggas On the Moon is the fourth album in three years by Sacramento group Death Grips. Their early work sampled Pink Floyd and Black Flag, and their later work has gone in different but equally loud direction. After last year’s cacophonous “Government Plates,” I was ready to write the trio of MC Ride and producers Zach Hill and Andy Morin off. I figured they had taken the group’s template as far as it could go, and I had heard all I need of Ride screaming about sex and drugs over clattering industrial beats. Their latest album, which is supposed to be the first half of a double album, proves me wrong. It’s more interesting and more listenable than “Government Plates,” and sees Ride maturing as an MC. (I realize it’s unfair to review a double album based on only half the album, but it’s the length of the album and was released first, so it seems like fair game).

All of the songs on “Niggas On the Moon” are built around samples of Icelandic avant-garde pop star Bjork. Death Grips did some remixes for Bjork, and she returned the favor by appearing on this album. That doesn’t mean that she is singing hooks, or that Death Grips are sampling “Big Time Sexuality” or “Oh So Quiet.” Instead, they take a snippet of her voice and give it the Death Grips treatment: filtering it almost beyond recognition and repeating it at 120 BPM. It’s a similar thing that they did with synthesizers and sirens and drums on “Government Plates.” The big difference is that Bjork’s voice filtered and worked over still maintains its soothing, ethereal quality. The result is beats that have an almost ambient feel even as they hammer and hiccup and stutter. 

This kindler, gentler backdrop gives Ride room to do something besides scream. His vocals are sometimes quiet and calm, which gives a nice contrast to his explosions of aggression. 
On earlier releases Ride came off as a crazed, drugged-out lunatic who seemed minutes away from an overdose or serious bodily harm. The incarnation of Ride on “Niggas On the Moon” is more sustainable, with less focus on drugs and being aggro and an overall more psychedelic feel. 

He still raps about sex and drugs, but the real focus is on trippy stream-of-consciousness, like “Xerox man dressed in gauze spiders silk in menopause.”  Take the lyrics to “Voila;” they seem to indicate that the title has more to do with getting really out there than anything NASA is up to:

Maybe I belong to you
I'm sure you want me to
My shadow's onto you
Voila, voila
I can't make you like voila
I'll make you love voila
Make you make love to voila
Make you place your faith with voila
Enough with what your temple knew

I don't talk to the help
Whose voila suits you too well?
Don't talk to the help

As on “Government Plates,” Rides vocals are not always front and center in the songs. Death Grips seems to be moving away from the rapper/producer mold and moving towards something different. There are a couple almost instrumental songs where Ride is barely present. Even on the songs where he’s featured, he’s just another element in the mix rather than the star of the show. And also like “Government Plates,” “Niggas On the Moon” is eschewing traditional song structures. “Viola” is the most vivid example, whiplashing between minimalism and complete insanity in an instant. There’s not a lot of  verse-chorus-verse going on here. 

“Niggas On the Moon” is a return to form for Death Grips, but it isn’t perfect. For one thing, the songs feel more like eight variations on the same concept than eight distinct tracks. That’s neither surprising nor unforgivable given the experimental bent of the band, but you can’t help but notice the sameness when you listen to the album. The album also doesn’t solve the quintessential Death Grips dilemma, which is the fact that their music is kind of annoying. If you aren’t in the mood for noise, then this is not the record for you. What it has going for it is that it doesn’t sound like anything else anyone has going right now, and it shows artistic growth. Plus, it’s available for free, so you’ll only be out time and hard drive space. If you are in the mood for hip-hop that pushes the envelope, or music that manages to be soothing and aggro at the same time, “Niggas On the Moon” has you covered.

Saturday, June 07, 2014


The year is almost half over, so I thought I'd make a list of my favorite records of the year so far. They are:

Bleeding Rainbow, Interrupt for its use of textures and its nice blend of shoegaze guitars, melodies, and male/female vocals.

The Solids, Blame Confusion for its chunky, melodic riffs that sound straight out of 1994

Atmosphere, Southsiders for the handful of great songs on the album that combine soulful, hard-hitting beats with introspective rhymes

Unwound, Rat Conspiracy, for collecting two of the best records of the 1990s plus some good b-sides.

One thing that's not really on this list is much hip-hop. That's because I haven't been listening to much hip-hop lately. I listen to the stuff I review, but that's about it. I'm turned off by the vulgarity and misogyny of mainstream and street rap, and there hasn't been much underground stuff that's moved me. If I listen to rap it is mostly old De La Soul records with my kid. At home with my kid I listen to kid's music, old jazz and old reggae. On my own, I listen to Grouper and Unwound. Almost exclusively. It's a little disturbing to me that I've been so into Unwound, given that I am 39. What I realized is that in some ways I'm at a similar point in my life as I was when I was into Unwound in my early twenties. Not really sure who I am supposed to be or what I am supposed to be doing, not totally satisfied with work, and feeling a little lost. That's a selfish way to be given that I have an amazing family and an amazing job and am incredibly lucky, but the transition to being a parent has given me a bit of an identity crisis, and working a mid-level job can be just as confusing and dissatisfying as working an entry-level job. What am I supposed to be doing, is this the career I want, have I overstayed my welcome, etc. etc. It's a similar sense of ennui and angst that the thrashings and wailings of Unwound help to soothe. Of course, when I was 19, I had a lot of freedom but no means to take advantage of it. Now I am more comfortable materially, but I have a lot more responsibilities. I worry all the time. What if I lose my job? What if I can't pay my mortgage? What if my wife or kid gets sick? The scenarios are constantly playing in my head. At 19 my girl problems were trying to get a girlfriend or get over a broken heart. Now my girl problems are hoping that my ladies stay healthy and I continue to be able to provide for them. Responsibility, man, it's a total buzzkill.

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