On last year’s mixtape Exmilitary, the Sacramento trio Death Grips introduced a jittery, nihilistic, sonically violent, and punk-inspired take on hip-hop that caught the attention of both rock critics and Epic Records CEO L.A. Reid. Reid’s apparent enthusiasm for the group’s music and commercial potential was one of the great head-scratching moments of 2011; Exmilitary provided plenty of thrills, but they weren’t the kind usually associated with major-label hip-hop.
The group’s new album, The Money Store, released on Epic in late April, is the first of two discs expected from Death Grips in 2012. (The second album, No Love, is scheduled for release in the fall.) The Money Store smoothes some of the rough edges of Exmilitary—the homemade production of drummer/producer Zach Hill and Andy Morin replaces the mixtape’s sample-heavy foundation—but the aggression and ferocity remain, in MC Ride’s machine-gun (and often unintelligible) rapping and Hill and Morin’s apocalyptic production.
Both Exmilitary and The Money Store have offered reviewers a seemingly unlimited supply of influences and reference points to chart, analyze, and argue about: noise rock, Public Enemy, industrial dance, dubstep, Suicidal Tendencies, Gang Gang Dance, Def Jux, Dalek, even Gary Numan and the Human League. The trainspotting pleasure of identifying the sources for Hill and Morin’s sounds betray the pair’s nerdy sensibility, but their egghead tendencies are overwhelmed by the sheer brute-force impact of the music—the low bass rumble, the scattershot programmed beats and hard-hitting live drums, the woozy, stomach-churning mid-range synths, the suffocating mix that swallows Ride’s vocals. After a while, just keeping your head on straight takes some concentration.
It’s hostile and disorienting, but The Money Store is also deceptively focused and disciplined. At just over 40 minutes, with only one of its 13 songs more than four minutes long, the album maintains a lurching forward momentum and internally consistent tone (even if that tone is a full-blown aural assault). It’s an endurance test, but there are tangible rewards for sticking it out. Repeat listens reveal the dance-floor hooks buried inside “The Fever (Aye Aye)” and “Double Helix”; and on at least a couple of songs—“Hacker” and “I’ve Seen Footage,” which borrows a beat from Salt-n-Pepa—classic pop song structures shine through the dirt and grime.
Death Grips’ spot on the Epic roster seems genuinely confounding. It’s hard to imagine even the catchiest and most spacious tracks here on commercial radio; these are jams made for sweaty basement shows and low-rent house parties. But The Money Store isn’t as dangerous and off-putting—or as revolutionary or experimental—as its early reputation indicates, either. The trio is defiantly out of step with contemporary hip-hop, but maybe that’s not the best framework for understanding Death Grips, which instead might be considered as a lo-fi, DIY take on dubstep.
This is bro music, for sure. Hill, drummer for the spazz-rock band Hella, has spent most of his career making noise with other dudes in small studios and dingy clubs, and Ride’s macho rapping doesn’t portend significant crossover audiences. The monochromatic production on The Money Store contrasts with the pristine dynamism, high-tech sound systems, and gut-busting bass drops of best-selling club acts like Skrillex or Bassnectar, but the album shares an exaggerated, extroverted personality and hypermasculine, us-versus-them swagger with dubstep’s least-subtle superstars. (The staggering, explosive “Hacker” and the strutting “Bitch Please” would blow up a rave dance floor.) In fact, the threat of barely contained violence that permeates The Money Store—the very quality that gives it underground credibility—is what’s confined recent big-club dubstep, no matter how popular it gets, to a critical ghetto, where it’s regarded as not much more than a lunk-headed, knuckle-dragging update on nu-metal. How much different, really, is Death Grips?