By Kellen Beck
The Powers That B is a two-part album. The first part, Niggas on the Moon, was released in summer 2014; the second part, Jenny Death, released March 31 this year.
Death Grips is genre-defying — a twisted amalgamation of hip hop, electronic, industrial, hard rock, thrash and punk. They are barely a band; instead, they consider themselves a performance art project that produces music. Within that, The Powers That B is a project consisting of two very different albums, combining to create a difficult, energy-filled message of frustration, anger and pride.
If Death Grips has any ties to a defining sound, Niggas on the Moon breaks them, mostly ignoring the notion of choruses, becoming a complex, disrupted flow of erratic sounds, punctuated by samples of Björk and manic vocal repetition. The album is too complex to hit home at a visceral level. It demands attention. There is no foot tapping, no fist pumping. If anything, it calls for determined pacing.
“Up My Sleeves” kicks it off, with sparse percussion and a haunting, repeating sample of Björk’s vocals. Its sound is angry and fed up, and is a sample of the entire album: rife with insane drumming from Zach Hill, MC Ride repeating the song title and an at-times overbearing presence of Björk. Like every song on the album, it flows directly into the next track. “Billy Not Really” sits higher than any other track, with an almost airy feeling. It’s rhythmic and is the only song that has room to breathe. Björk’s samples in this track are flighty, angelic and comforting.
Following the robotic, erratic mess of “Have a Sad Cum,” the sixth track “Fuck Me Out” is a different sort of mess. MC Ride intimately whisper-talks the lines “Death, fuck/ Let’s, fuck/ Just don’t touch me/ Just fuck-fuck me.” The track is an abrasive, personal crisis of emotions — the need for sex but the disgust of intimacy.
The album ends on its eighth track, “Big Dipper.” The fast beat, erratic percussion and Björk sampling continues under and over the self-defining lyrics. “I’m a bullshitter/ I’m a shitty stripper/ I’m a silhouette lifter/ I’m a structure off kilter/ I’m a bit bewildered/ I’m a fucking downer/ I’m a binge thinner/ I’m a big dipper.” As this verse repeats four times over the song, the tone becomes increasingly in-your-face and out of breath.
MC Ride ends with a bomb: “It’s my pyre, agoraphobe if you want to/ Afford to be consumed/ This pyre’s my costume/ get too close it’ll lick you/ Like it likes you/ ‘Cause it loathes you/ Even more than I do.” And then the fast beat, percussion and samples play until silence. It’s an open ending, awaiting closure.
Niggas on the Moon leaves an amphetamine-like high fueled by racism, pent-up sexual energy, and frustration with self, society and sin. It’s finely-tuned yet difficult, faring much better on a contemplative level than a visceral one.
If Niggas on the Moon is the first act of The Powers That B, then the second act was a middle finger. In the months spanning the release of the first part and second part, Death Grips canceled a tour, didn’t show up to gigs and released an uninspired instrumental album entitled Fashion Week, whose song titles spelled out JENNYDEATHWHEN. The group left fans biting their nails, waiting for some sort of redemption to the shit they’ve been handed since the first part dropped. And then a few days before the scheduled release, Death Grips put Jenny Death online.
Jenny Death is an exploration of style not unlike Niggas on the Moon, although in an entirely different direction. Death Grips regains its catchiness, choruses are heralded and the sounds of a heavily damaged guitar lead a number of tracks into territory previously unexplored by the group. And it starts with a punch.
“I Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States” is a track that lives up to its title. It immediately ramps up with the energy dripping off of “Big Dipper.” The unrelenting percussive beat, repetition of the title and declaration of “I don’t care about real life” being driven by back-and-forth heavy guitar chords builds up energy until it fizzles at 2:30. And then one of the best songs off The Powers That B rips forward.
“Inanimate Sensations” revs up repeatedly with crescendoing vocals and fat, shredding metallic noise. They drop away to heavy lyrical bombs, dripping with frustration and insanity. The crescendos repeat, incessantly driving up energy until the third track, “Turned Off.” The song starts with a haunting guitar riff, slightly distorted and eerie, almost triumphant. It’s a small hint of the guitar work found later in the album, until it’s crushed by an onslaught of percussion and distorted static. “I’m smoking cigarettes in the shower/ When they get wet I just light another/ Fatal cardiac over cancer don’t gimme no suffer/ Steal me over feel me linger until I’m six under/ Ain’t a fucking thing sacred when I get naked.”
The words manifest a motif of The Powers That B — an indifference to death.
On par with “Inanimate Sensations,” the sixth track “The Powers That B” is a driving, anger-induced track that pulses with power. It’s so prideful it almost seems like a joke, but given the quality of the album so far, it almost seems justified. The song taunts competition, but what competition does a group like Death Grips have?
The following four songs give way a bit, defined by clear guitar work, with “Beyond Alive” having a weak sort of Radiohead feel. “Centuries of Damn” reaches into psychedelic territory, sounding like an uplifting understanding or discovery of something, but laced with malicious lyrics.
“On GP” is a torrent of emotion, inarguably the catchiest song off The Powers That B. It has haunting organ, hard rock-esque guitar that feels ripped off a Led Zeppelin song and percussion played perfectly, accenting high points with a triumphant flurry of cymbals. The group transforms into something different in this track, moving from frustration and anger into resignation, and something that almost sounds like happiness.
Appropriately, Jenny Death leaves off on the tenth track “Death Grips 2.0,” an instrumental song that is abrasive, erratic, heavily produced and intense like Niggas on the Moon. It doesn’t answer any questions, but it’s a satisfying ending. The title appears to point toward something on the horizon for Death Grips, considering their post on Facebook saying “We might make some more,” even though they declared earlier that The Powers That B would be their final production.
Death Grips is aloof, hard to pin down and experimental to a degree that leaves them with a very small following. This isn’t music that’s meant to be easily listened to; it’s difficult, abstract, confusing and dizzying. The Powers That B is their most difficult album yet, but contains some of their best compositions. It is a mystery whether they’ll release anything else, but, if not, this was a hell of a way to go out.