Release Date: November 13, 2013
Imagine if Death Grips had behaved themselves — if the last 18 months of sensationalist headlines about the livewire trio had never been written. They’d be just another group signed to a major label and, more than likely, in constant danger of being dropped for not being especially marketable. Imagine that after April 2012’s The Money Store (courtesy of Epic Records), they’d simply toured diligently behind it, never missing a gig. They still might have released something similar to what became October 2012’s No Love Deep Web, likely sometime this year instead, and with Epic’s approval, and without a Sharpie-covered cock on the cover. Then they would’ve toured some more, dutifully toiled on the 2013 summer-festival circuit, and around now would probably begin work in earnest on their fourth album — this droll scenario assuming, of course, that calcifying commercial expectations and internal label rancor hadn’t already compelled them to call it quits.
None of this happened, of course. Rather, Death Grips infamously canceled shows last year to work on No Love Deep Web, a particularly abrasive record they self-released online — gratis, and with a Sharpie-covered cock on the cover — in spite of a binding contract with Epic. They then mocked their subsequent dismissal from the label, publishing fretful e-mails from label executives rather than apologizing. And this year, the trio bailed on major festivals and rock clubs alike, staging what some (myself included) have equated to happenings, and others to horseshit. And then, two weeks ago, just as critics had started to submit their requisite lists of the year’s best albums, these music-press lightning rods wrote another unexpected headline for themselves by releasing their fourth and most evasive record, Government Plates, with very little warning.
In the last two years, Death Grips have been dead-set on abandoning everything and everyone — labels, agents, audiences. Now, they’ve largely abandoned a fundamental aspect of their music: the manic, rabid raps of MC Ride. Even with a far less verbal approach this time, the result is as forceful and confrontational as anything they’ve ever recorded; there’s always been an obvious strain of rebellion at work, but on Government Plates, that defiance becomes the core, a hostile reaction not only to their Epic problems, but also to anyone who assumes this band has done anything at all without its very good reasons. The result extends a middle finger, and then sticks it in everyone’s eye.
The album smashes open to the sound of breaking glass and synthesizers replicating air-raid sirens, followed by the moment where Ride’s mind finally rips apart: “Gets so fucking dark in here / Come come apart in here,” he shouts, assailing the world to join in his oblivion. He screams, and the terror pushes into your nerves like a horror film’s big reveal. Surges of paranoia and disorientation, ire and independence emerge as the true refrain of an album so fundamentally addled that its most prominent hooks are “Fuck who’s watching” and “Fuck you think I fuck this for?” On Anne Bonny,” Ride drops out of life with pills in hand; during “Two Heavens,” he references martial arts and threatens murder, tells the world to suck his dick and seeks the company of “real ones… burning freak-fuck flags.” Not meant to be agreeable, Government Plates draws a series of lines in the sand and dares you to join or die.
On the back half, Ride barely bothers with words at all — or at least anything more developed than a simple phrase hollered and looped. “Feels Like a Wheel” is a militant rave, with a beat that’s just a little too hard to be nice and crisscrossed androgynous vocals that turn every new voice that enters into another invention of your own crazed mind. The title track initially glistens, with airy synthesizers and a latticework beat, but by tune’s end, all the parts are working against one another, with the rhythm and texture and sample clashing in a way that suggests Autechre hijacking its own work. The result is disorienting but vivid, a well-lit house of horrors. Ride returns to somewhat conventional rapping during “I’m Overflow,” delivering three lines about government secrecy and neurotransmitter euphoria three times. But these are only brief interjections amid crybaby keyboards, static squalls, and a junkyard beat that’s always about to destroy itself. The words only reinforce the uneasiness, rather than drive it.
Only two years later, Death Grips’ auspicious 2011 debut Exmilitary seems relatively pat, with its rather familiar narrative format and consistent song structures. But on that album, Ride immediately warned everyone about the way this whole thing might go, from the suits at Epic to those initially partial to his damaged yawp: “Fuck where you’re from / Fuck where you’re going,” he shouted in chorus with Mexican Girl at the close of a particularly ferocious number about self-reliance and professional defiance. “It’s all about where you’re at.”
That sentiment has partially animated every Death Grips album to date, but it defines Government Plates, an album so urgent and pressing that it often foregoes language for feeling, explanations for executions. Had Death Grips stayed the course and stuck with a major label — had they not disappointed their fans and financiers alike — it likely never would have happened. These shouts of “Freelance, motherfuckers!” and digital clips telling us that we’ve been banned from the channel would have no place in their standard band-on-major-label saga. But this is a transmission from self-imposed exile, where the headlines only serve to add heat to Death Grips’ scorched-earth approach to everything.