Release Date: April 24, 2012
Hip-hop’s first 20 years were built on decibels. A Bronx-bred arms race over speaker size, rocking without a band, “my JVC” vibrating the concrete, pumping up the volume, sampling “The Big Beat” and “Angel of Death” and Skull Snaps, and cars that go boom doing donuts on your manicured lawn while blasting the Aerosmith breaks stolen from the water-tower party. Then, some time before DMC lost his unmistakable voice forever, “saying it” became more important than “spraying it,” and hip-hop evolved into lyrically complex, emotionally profound comfort food with a license to chill.
In turn, hip-hop in 2012 has drifted toward slow-rolling country-rap tunes and floaty Glasser samples, A$AP Rocky’s “trillwave” and Main Attrakionz’s “cloud rap,” the mollifying effects of Future’s AutoTune experiments and the regular-dude stress relief of G-Side’s “Atmosphere,” Skylar Grey wailing soft-rock ballads and Curren$y rapping like an anthropomorphic puff of weed smoke. Names like Smoke DZA, Ethereal, and Shady Blaze are galaxies and several mood-ring shades away from the action verbs and psycho-stimulants that drove names like Cold Crush, Crash Crew, Kurtis Blow, and T La Rock. For a generation of kids who never knew a world without Snoop, rappers who yell are now the outliers.
All of this is why Sacramento, California trio Death Grips are probably rap’s most unlikely major-label signing since MC 900 Ft. Jesus. Their Epic debut, The Money Store, fits into modern hip-hop like a square peg on fire, a 40-minute straitjacket tantrum of vein-popping, slow-flow barks closer to Helmet’s Page Hamilton than Harlem’s Charles Hamilton. Death Grips can’t even hang in the small, insular bubble where modern aggro-rap actually exists — blustery, monolithic producer Lex Luger and foil Waka Flocka Flame, or post–Lex Luger shouters like Gunplay, Trouble, and the rejuiced Juicy J. Equal parts strip club and tear-da-club-up, these ALL-CAPS rappers scream in the face of Bruno Mars while Tyler just mutters threats under his breath. But they’re still tempering those yells with some semblance of pop aspirations and Trey Songz guest spots. There are no “Grove St.” parties at The Money Store. Death Grips MC Stefan Burnett is gruff and melody-free, screaming, “Fuck you!” and “Fuck it!” and “Fuck that!” until he’s hoarse. A lithe, heavily tattooed hardcore belter, Burnett sounds like 300-pound Rick Ross doing a Negative Approach cover.
Similarly, the beats owe less to any rap group than to the industrial dub of Techno Animal or the shrill “digital hardcore” of Alec Empire, all sirens and alarms and Dilla noize popping off and immediately phased into oblivion. Burnett suffocates in wave after wave of reverb. Coproducer Zach Hill can’t help but give everything that jittery, free-jungle feel that his drumming lends to records by Hella and Marnie Stern, turning the head-knocking groove of “Get Got” into a 176-bpm nic fit with the subtlety of a car crash.
Though as gloriously, perfectly broken as The Money Store sounds in the Kush & OJ era, it’s still an unfulfilled promise compared to Death Grips’ anxious, self-released 2011 pileup Exmilitary. With major-label accountability comes a dramatically lessened ability to sample freely; that anarchic earlier record spoke loudest through its all-too-perfect tangle of referents (Charles Manson, Magma, Jane’s Addiction, Black Flag, Pet Shop Boys). Although every Money Store track has some juiced-up signature scree — the elevator-going-up of “The Fever (Aye Aye),” the bare-wire buzzing of “Lost Boys,” the wubstep crawl of “The Cage” — nothing can compare to the raw, imperfect way that samples rub up against one another.
Thankfully, Death Grips still work their mightiest to bring that tension in other ways, their fist-pump beats doing a slow grind while Hill’s buck-fuckin’-wild drumming (in analog or digital format) creates a constant popcorn-popping ratatatatatatat. The competing rhythms sometime meet contentiously or work in perfect harmony, redolent of nothing but the push-pull-push of Chicago footwork or the impossible rattle-and-pound of Public Enemy songs like “Night of the Living Baseheads.” Rap as traffic jam, punker Xerox-and-Elmer’s collage art as rap. Make some noise if you’re with me?