Monday 6 April 2015

Review of 'The Powers That B' by Death Grips

The Californian experimental hip hoppers continue to push sonic boundaries on their supposedly final album, but is it an explosive enough ending to make up for their unpredictable and action-packed career?

When friends, family members and random elderly strangers in the street ask me why I like Death Grips, my response is usually something illogical and vague like ‘because they’re nuts’. The truth is, I’m not entirely sure myself as to why I love Death Grips. Their music is largely unmusical. Vocalist MC Ride sounds like a hobo whose stubbed his toe and even with a lyric sheet, it’s hard to make out whether he’s spurting out dense poetry or simply nonsense.

'I'm epiphanic amnesia! I'm in Jimmy Page's castle! I'm off the planet!' - MC Ride
In many ways, it is simply the mystery of not understanding Death Grips that is the appeal – that and the fact that their raw aggression is so primal and thrilling.

Last year, scrawled apathetically on the back of a napkin as is their style, the band announced their breakup, stating: ‘We are now at our best and so Death Grips is over’. Assuming it’s not just another publicity stunt, The Powers that B is the group’s final album.

Essentially it’s two records disguised as a double album. The first half, N****s on the Moon, was released before the band’s breakup and I rambled briefly about it on this blog. Having listened to it a few times, I’ve grown to appreciate it. It’s the band’s most proggy album yet, consisting of complex songs with changing time signatures, interspersed with random chopped-up Bjork vocals. MC Ride’s voice meanwhile is at its most clearest, whilst his lyrics are some of his most impenetrable: ‘melanin pewter cellophane/ arms as long as their legs/ even the greys can’t/ voila’.

The second part of The Powers that B was released a couple weeks ago and is titled Jenny Death. Unlike its counterpart, there’s less progginess, less word salad and less chopped-up Bjork vocals. In fact, the glitchy Bjork vocals have been traded in completely for a new motif – guitars. Many of the songs contain distorted hardcore punk riffs – namely ‘Turned Off’ and ‘Why a Bitch Got A Lie’. Whilst N****s on the Moon is the band’s proggiest release, Jenny Death can be viewed as their most punky.  

Prog and punk are essentially ying and yang musically – one celebrating depth and complexity, the other celebrating rawness and simplicity. Consequently, the two halves of The Powers That B don’t feel very cohesive as a whole. Maybe it was Death Grips’ intention to show how schizophrenic they can be stylistically. Personally, I feel I’m tempted to listen to one at a time rather than both as a whole, suggesting they should be two separate albums.

The album is certainly their most extreme work to date by all definitions of the word, which is something Death Grips have always tried to achieve with each release and hence would imply that this is a suitable finale to their career. The title track, ‘The Powers that B’, is their loudest and most abrasive banger since the opener to Government Plates.  ‘On GP’ meanwhile is their most depressive, containing some explicitly suicidal lyrics and ending rather powerfully on the line: ‘I’d be a liar if I sat here claiming I’d exit in a minute/ but I can’t say I wouldn’t have my limits.’. This itself is a heavy statement to end the band’s career on, and is further explored in the closing instrumental proceeding it entitled ‘Death Grips 2.0’. This closing track is the group’s fastest and most sinister sounding track so far and the ‘2.0’ in the title helps to end the album with an air of mystery – are Death Grips going to one day reform as more advanced version of themselves? Or have they reached their ‘limits’.

Most of these standout moments happen in the second half, Jenny Death, which leaves the first half, N****s on the Moon, feeling a bit redundant as part of the climax. That being said, the first half is still enjoyable and flows better than Jenny Death. The topic of sex is also explored more deeply on N****s on the Moon than any previous release, with tracks like ‘Fuck me out’ and the hilariously titled ‘Have a Sad Cum’ painting it as a depressive subject. It has always been Death Grips mission to turn hip hop clich├ęs on their head, and this itself seems like an attack on sexual braggadocio. Arguably, Jenny Death contains the most blatant example – ‘Pss Pss’ being a charming trap-flavoured number about pissing on a girl’s face.

Overall, The Powers That B succeeds at doing what all Death Grips albums have done before it – it raises more questions than answers. Death Grips could never give us an explosive ending as this would require destroying the air of mystery that is so essential to their appeal. They’d have to reveal some major plot twist – ‘Death Grips were One Direction in disguise all along’ or something along those lines. Sadly, I don’t think the band have anything nearly as impressive to reveal, no dark hidden secrets, no grand plot to overthrow the music industry. However, I do believe there is more to their music than simply spontaneous noise for the sake of being noisy, and the desire to decipher this is what makes Death Grips so engaging.