Death Grips – “The Powers That B” (n****s on the moon/jenny death)

Grade: C, B+

Key Tracks: “Black Quarterback” / “I Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States” “Why a Bitch Gotta Lie”

Let’s get this out of the way – this double album is two different albums. There’s no narrative or connecting piece. Disc 1, “n****s in the moon,” was released last year, while “jenny death” has just come out. So for this review, they’re being judged separately. And boy, are they different.

Disc 1 of this double album suffers from every problem that you can imagine noise-rap group Death Grips having – over-production, vocals too far lost in the mix, too choppy, and too sampled. Alt-avant-garde legend Bjork was excited to announce that her vocals were lent to every track on this album. But, they serve little purpose than to add to the noise. Often, like on the album’s best track, “Black Quarterback,” MC Ride’s scream-rapping is lost in the mix, almost hidden under Bjork’s unnecessary samples.

I do have to hand it to Death Grips for trying to incorporate Bjork on every track. Death Grips are essentially a novelty act with a political motive – the loudest, most boisterous and disruptive rap group in music. In this case, Bjork makes sense. And Death Grips have always suffered from the potentiality of repeating themselves, so to include the Norwegian legend on every track is something tonally new. But what results is an album similar to 2014’s “Government Plates” – musically interesting, but severely lacking in MC Ride’s frontman presence.

“jenny death” is a wholly separate album from “n****s on the moon.” The first disc, as problematic as it was, flowed from every song into the next. “jenny death” focuses on the songwriting on an individual level. There’s no constant flow between songs, as the band lets each develop on it’s own. On this disc, we get excellent amounts of MC Ride, permeating every track with his whisper-to-a-scream rapping. “jenny death” proves that for Death Grips, the parts are greater than the sum. Ride is on full force, leading the group fearlessly through every track. It’s significantly better, because of his presence. It’s heavy without being overbearing, and everyone involved is simply in sync with each other.

Death Grips’ legacy is one marked by experimentation. They’ve been a band of two, three, one, occasionally none. Last year, they broke up, during a string of dates opening for Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden. Then they released “Fashion Weak,” and announced a string of tour dates. In Chicago, they didn’t show for Lollapalooza, and didn’t show for the headlining after-show, instead putting up a fan’s suicide note as a backdrop. They weren’t even in Illinois. On a major label, they signed, got a bunch of money, and then released their album for free (“No Love Deep Web”) without the label’s knowledge. The band’s public stunts and antics range from comical, to political, to deeply questionable. Their discography is similar – it starts great, only to quickly move into waves. “the powers that b” is both waves – the band at it’s worst, and the band at it’s best. This is supposedly their last album, and if it is, it’s a questionably memorable and definitely fitting way to go out. But there’s nothing that makes me think they’re done. They’re touring and releasing instrumentals, “breaking up” was just another stunt. I, like many fans, have learned to take these things in stride. They’re a great band; they’re not as great as they think they are. Still, the second disc of this album proves the band still has the energy, anger, and experimentation as they did in their beginnings a few years back.

-By Andrew McNally

Childish Gambino – “Because the Internet”

(Photo Credit: hiphopwired)

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “I. the worst guys” “IV. sweatpants”

I’ll be upfront and say that I’ve never really gotten onboard with Childish Gambino. “You See Me” is one of my favorite hip-hop songs ever, but I find most of his other work a mix of tepid and unbelievable. Gambino is the alter ego of Donald Glover – Community’s Troy Barnes, founding member of Derrick Comedy and writer of 30 Rock’s classic “Funcooker” episode. Glover will always be Barnes to me – the endearingly naive manchild/football star. But Childish Gambino is more than a Wu Tang-generated name, it’s a whole persona. Gambino is moody and stubborn on this album, and it’s impossible to tell if it is sincerely reflecting Glover, or if it just fits into a crazy narrative.

The album is split into five parts, although the first two don’t really have any strong narrative structure. Each song is prefaced by Roman numerals, restarting at each section, which gets confusing. The first section is just two seemingly unrelated songs, “crawl” and “WORLDSTAR.” The former is dull, and the latter features some incredibly lazy rapping. The second section also seems to have no arc, although features some of the better songs (including my two key tracks, the first of which features Chance the Rapper). The third bit is a concise and slightly disturbing look at regretting throwing a party and wanting everyone to leave. It’s a cold and alienating bit, in both good and bad ways. Finally, the last two bits are much longer and more experimental, dishing out on the ironic alienation of the internet. It’s the most concise and interesting part, although it does feature a lot of clunky internet lingo like “GPOY” pretty frequently. Still, the tone of the last few songs is hauntingly engaging.

Gambino is a product of the internet age. He released the album online and promoted it online, as many others are doing. Wikipedia’s entry for the album even has the cover as a .gif instead of a .jpg. The messages about how the internet is becoming our universal language are all true and convincing, especially coming from someone of the right age. Without the original online Derrick Comedy sketches, he would’ve never been noticed by 30 Rock in the first place. The album just feels inconsistent. At points, Gambino’s rapping is urgent and frustrated, at other points it’s sluggish and too apathetic. The ideas and the experimentation are largely successful, and this ranks as one of the more original releases of the year. It just feels forced coming from the man who uttered the phrase “It touched my butt’s mouth” in the Community season 5 trailer that came out one week later. “Because the Internet” is a zeitgeist for my generation, about the headlong dive into the technological era. But it’s less experimental than Kanye’s “Yeezus,” less moody than Earl Sweatshirt’s “Doris,” and less online based than Death Grips’ “Government Plates.” Had those albums not come out within the last few months, “Because the Internet” might be a more important release. Surely, though, Glover will be back before we know it. I’ll be glued to my TV when Community comes back on.

If you like this, try: Earl Sweatshirt’s “Doris.” Though not one of the most memorable rap releases of the year, it’s one of the most consistent, and a deep look into a disturbed man.

-By Andrew McNally

Death Grips – “Government Plates”

(Photo Credit: Pitchfork)

Grade: B-

Key Tracks: “You might think he loves you for your money but I know what he really loves you for it’s your brand new leopard skin pillbox hat”  “Birds”

Let me say that I was one of the many people complaining that last year’s album “The Money Store” felt too conventional. Sure, it had some of the best songs the band has recorded, and it still felt like genuine Death Grips, but there was that worry that signing to a major label had influenced the band to gravitate towards more radio-friendly hip-hop. Well, we were proven wrong later that year by “No Love Deep Web,” as the band leaked the album online just to spite EMI (and the famously explicit cover image). Well “Government Plates” is the most experimental album they’ve done yet – but it goes in the other direction. For the first time, MC Ride and Zach Hill take a back seat to Flatlander. The music is the focus on this album, and while it’s still urgent and shocking, it doesn’t exactly feel necessary.

My favorite Death Grips song is “Blood Creepin’,” the last song on their original (and perfect) mixtape “Ex-Military,” pretty much because it’s their loudest song. MC Ride’s scream-rapping over Flatlander’s alternately pretty and distorted synth is just a pure assault on the ears. There’s no assaulting on this album. MC Ride is barely present on some songs. It’s all about the experimentation, and Flatlander does a decent job staying abrasive without ever treading into EDM or anything, but the band could’ve pushed a little farther. The opener, whose title is taken from Bob Dylan’s “Leopard Skin Pill-Box Hat” is so drenched in a synth rhythm that it’s impossible not to dance, with your mouth on the floor. But the next song, “Anne Bonny,” just doesn’t live up. For the first time, the album feels centered around a few songs instead of a cohesive effort. The pre-released “Birds” is certainly a stand out, subtle but the most experimental song on the album. And they end strong, with the winding “Whatever I Want (F**k Who’s Watching).” But the songs in between should be better. They’re never bad – they’re just sort of there.

The best example of how different this album is would be the song “Big House.” The song starts with a loopy, 80’s synth rhythm. Despite being under two and a half minutes, MC Ride doesn’t show up until the :52 mark. There’s a lot more music on this album, as the group further continues to question what it means to be a hip-hop band. It was inevitable that they would investigate the other side of the spectrum. MC Ride and Zach Hill being less of a presence on this album feels very intentional, because it’s just as challenging as anything they’ve done before. While it’s not challenging on the ears, it shakes the very foundations of hip-hop by having the frontman often take a backseat, and to have songs drop senses of rhythm for experimentation.

That said, I’m really not on board with the lack of Zach Hill on this album. He’s barely present. He’s easily one of the best drummers working today, and he could’ve done some very original work on this album, but there’s so little percussion.

It has yet to be announced if this is an actual Death Grips album or if this is the soundtrack they’ve allegedly been working on for Zach Hill’s film. Frankly, it could go either way. It almost feels like a soundtrack – it’s got a slight disconnect amongst the songs, with a strong beginning and end – but it’s a good listen no matter which it is. I can’t say Death Grips fans will love it on first listen, and I didn’t. But it might grow after some revisits. It’s just as different as everything they’ve done prior to now – they’re making the same statements. It isn’t quite as enjoyable, but it’s certainly not bad. They’re not songs you’ll be singing to yourself, they’re not songs that EMI would approve of, and they’re head-scratchers. And really, that what Death Grips is striving to be. The album doesn’t play out like it hopes to, and it’s more unmemorable than memorable. It’s still Death Grips, though, and by this point, I don’t think I could live without them.