This article previously appeared on Crossfader
Genre – Experimental Hip Hop
Favorite Tracks: “Death Grips is Online,” “Black Paint,” “Hahaha,” “Streaky,” “Disappointed”
Death Grips have never played it safe. Since the trio’s inception, they have remained consistently unpredictable, often acting in seemingly self-harming fashion. The band had a messy public break up with their previous label Epic Records, spawned think pieces concerning the ethics of their no-show appearance at Lollapalooza 2013, and even announced, on a napkin, their disbandment, only to begin releasing music again a few months later. Despite the occasionally gaudy spectacle of their expressions, Death Grips oozes the ever-coveted badge of musical authenticity: their behavior is just as insane as their demented music.
That’s why the group’s most recent release, YEAR OF THE SNITCH, feels like such an apt continuation of the group’s perennial ethos of erraticism handcuffed to reinvention. From a sharp focus on jarring vocal chopping and heavy guitar work on their 2015 album THE POWERS THAT B, to a pivot towards violent, pop hook-centered rhythms on 2016’s BOTTOMLESS PIT, Death Grips are chameleons where experimentation with sound is concerned. A few features of their brand stand consistent, however: their tunes remain sonically visceral, lyrically nihilistic, and not without a pitch black sense of humor. Sure enough, YEAR OF THE SNITCH executes these methods with some of their most mind-bending and singular results to date.
From front to back, the 37-minute record has zero wasted space, with nary a second of radio silence. Every song transitions smoothly and logically into the next. Naturally, after a track like “Shitshow,” which features some of the most rapid-fire drum and vocal work the group has ever produced, it’s a relief to hear a slinky, groove-laden piece of mosh pit pop like “Streaky.” Death Grips pummel us with arguably their most aggressive punk statement one minute, followed by the record’s most infectious earworm the next.
The range of genres YEAR OF THE SNITCH encapsulates and frequently melds together jolts the ears. Opening track “Death Grips is Online” adeptly toggles between darkwave-esque keyboard sections and shoegaze-like guitar moans, all supported by the steady backbone of MC Ride’s reliably eerie mutterings and feral yelps. “Black Paint” is one of the band’s most satisfying outings in the realm of punk music. Ride’s vocals sound like they’re escaping a wormhole, ascending and descending with frenzied pace in the mix, while a cacophony of rowdy drums, squelching guitars, and layered shouts all form an air-tight, head-banging hellscape. Meanwhile, the manic drum vamping on “Dilemma” and the comically melodramatic piano on “The Fear” see Death Grips incorporating elements of jazz, even if those elements are contrasted against a flurry of paranoid synths and confrontational screams.
Amidst the erratic electronic needling and punishing percussion, a haunting through line of anger, depression, sexual aggression and, most of all, suicidal tendencies, percolates through YEAR OF THE SNITCH. “You think I could hold / This statue off the balcony / I think I’ll stay a while / I think I’ll stay a while / Spin the bottle,” Ride muses on “Black Paint,” indirectly evoking the infamous picture of his defiant pose, dangerously perched on a balcony of the Chateau Marmont. Previously, on “Flies,” Ride abstractly and poetically imagines a corpse-like symbiosis with the insects: “Should the opportunity arise, vomit me flies / Flies vomit me, together’s unwise, sever all ties / Should the opportunity arise, vomit me flies / Flies vomit me, vomit green eyes.” Fittingly, the most direct application of this theme arrives on “The Fear” as Ride quite literally makes a life or death choice from that balcony: “The fear, the fear / Jump, jump / Don’t jump!”
YEAR OF THE SNITCH is far from the first time Death Grips has dealt with suicidal thought—“On GP,” a highlight from THE POWERS THAT B, meditated on the subject in great detail. However, rarely has the topic felt as raw, biting, and immediate as it does for the band here. The frenetic pace and constant vocal shifting, especially on a song like “The Fear,” denote an unstable thinking pattern and split thoughts. The band’s penmanship remains as frightfully and strategically blunt as ever.
The album is not easy to decode or explain away, and absorbing its rending beats and murky subtexts often feels like a physically tangible challenge—thrilling listening by any measure. However, the band’s experimentation occasionally overly stretches into abstraction. The muddled and hushed vocal mixing on “Linda’s in Custody” and “Little Richard” don’t leave much of an impact. There’s intriguing, atypical tempo pacing on both tracks, but it’s hard to latch onto the instrumentals when contrasted against hook-rich tracks like “Streaky” or “Hahaha.”
At their worst, Death Grips craft singular, idiosyncratic sound experiments. At their best, Death Grips are an essential group in contemporary music, shapeshifting, grizzled musical nomads who master an abrasive style just as quickly as they abandon it altogether the following album cycle. Almost no other band could have created as consistently diverse and crazed an album as YEAR OF THE SNITCH. Almost no other band lives as dangerously as Death Grips.