Death Grips is a band that has continually defied and deformed any box or expectations that have been placed upon them. From leaking their own album while signed to Epic, dropping off of tours at a moment’s notice, and continually shifting their sound into ever more esoteric realms, they’ve become an entity that is at once fascinating and nearly impossible to define. So perhaps it’s not shocking that when they set out to release a double album, they broke the rules yet again – originally releasing the first half of The Powers That B, Niggas on the Moon in June 2014, then promptly breaking up. The second half, Jenny Death, was still promised to drop by the end of the year, but didn’t actually materialize until now, three months into 2015. But now that it’s finally surfaced, and the chorus of “JENNY DEATH WHEN?” has come to a rest, The Powers That B can be looked at and enjoyed as the full body of work it was always meant to be.
The first disc of The Powers That B, Niggas on the Moon, is the most distinct piece of work in the band’s discography. Here, Death Grips have ditched the usual bravado and confrontational attitude that has fueled the vast majority of their music, and in its place is a glitchy, paranoid piece of electronica that plays like a sort of digital purgatory. This is the cleanest, most clinical sounding music the band has ever made, throwing out the banging distorted synths and massive drum beats and replacing them with skittering, densely layered drum lines and synths that sound like muzak for Hell’s waiting room. It’s a taught, paranoid listen, and the constantly shifting song structures and Bjork’s shredded vocal samples keep the listener on their toes. In fact, the entire album purposefully runs together, segueing together seamlessly and making it nearly impossible to tell when one track ends and another begins. It feels like improvised, stream of consciousness music at times, jumping from one idea to the next almost as soon as they’re thought of. The same goes for Burnett’s cryptic lyrics, which throw aside the ‘badman’ character he usually plays in favor of fragments of thought, poetry that barely hangs together and feels all the more urgent for it. There are precious few moments of clarity in his lines, precious few lyrics that aren’t obfuscated by a soup of words, and this dissonance is belied by (or even emphasized by) its calm exterior delivery. In its entirety, Niggas on the Moon is like the panic attack of a deeply introverted and paranoid individual, the constant noise of thought being represented by the fragmented lyrics and music that barely holds together, shrieking and coiling and unwinding at a moment’s notice. It’s a journey into the mind of someone who has allowed their thoughts to venture into ever stranger avenues, outside the channels of ‘normal’ thought and into something more abstract and sinister, yet is almost (yet not quite) calm on the exterior. Songs like “Billy Not Really” and “Black Quarterback” barely cling to a shred of normality, with their hooks fighting to surface against the push and pull of the dense beats, and “Have A Sad Cum” is a fractured duet between the shredded vocals of both Bjork and Burnett. There isn’t a single moment in the album’s 35 minute run time where the claustrophobia lets up, until the entire beat finally falls apart in a cascading wall of broken noise at the end of “Big Dipper”, setting the stage for Jenny Death.
If Niggas on the Moon is a trip into an introverted mind, then Jenny Death is its polar opposite, the yin to its yang. Jenny Death is worlds apart from its other half, blasting out of the gates with the familiar cacophony and aggression of the band’s past with “I Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States”. Everything you would expect from Death Grips is here and is blown out to macroscopic proportions: every beat is louder, every guitar and synth is more distorted, and Burnett’s voice is pushed to its absolute limits, cracking and rasping like that of some manic preacher. Perhaps the most striking feature of Jenny Death is that it’s the first Death Grips album to dip back into previous territory, sounding like Exmilitary‘s older, more psychotic brother on tracks like “Turned Off” and “Beyond Alive”. Because for the first time since that album, electric guitar is a major feature of a large number of the songs, provided by Nick Reinhart of fellow Sacto group Tera Melos. But unlike Exmilitary, the guitar work here lends a psychedelic edge to these songs, giving the music an almost upbeat and celebratory feel in the midst of its aggression. It also helps distinguish the songs, because where Niggas on the Moon is a seamless chunk of claustrophobia, Jenny Death is laden with hooks both vocal and instrumental. And guitar isn’t the only live instrument present, either – in the past Death Grips have relied mostly on electronic drum samples and drum machines, giving them a colder, harder edge. But on Jenny Death, drummer Zach Hill has finally taken the frenetic drumming that distinguishes the band’s live performances and laid it down over these songs, lending an even more ferocious and chaotic edge to their sound. And where its other half is cloaked in cryptic poetry and stream of consciousness ranting, Jenny Death‘s lyrics are much more personal and clear. Here Burnett returns to the style of lyrics he employed on the band’s first three albums, throwing shade at those around him and at the corrupted workings of a society he’s never fit into, while simultaneously reveling in his outsider status. But that’s just where it begins. As the album progresses, the lyrics slowly shift from the extroverted and violent to exploring depression and isolation, culminating in the penultimate track “On GP”. Burnett’s lyrics have never been clearer or more personal than they are here, depicting his struggles with suicidal thoughts and depression, stating that he only stays here for the friends and family he would destroy by destroying himself. This track is the true dramatic conclusion to the disc, building up, dropping out, and building up again to buoy the intense lyricism, breaking into a crescendo of noise that leads into the stuttering instrumental “Death Grips 2.0” (which is the only track on Jenny Death that recalls Niggas on the Moon). This song doesn’t end the album with any sort of cathartic resolution, but rather feels like it’s raising more questions than answers, feeling like it should lead into something else altogether (which from the title, may just be the point).
This duality of sound throughout both halves of The Powers That B is very deliberate, creating a clear contrast between their most introverted and most extroverted tendencies. Niggas on the Moon is a paranoid, dense, and unsettling slab of electronics, while Jenny Death is the extrovert trying to beat its problems into submission with the brute force of huge beats and walls of noise (yet ultimately failing, as the vocal-less final track suggests). Each disc of The Powers That B represents one of the furthest extremes of Death Grips’ sound, from the glitchy, distorted electronica of Government Plates to the most aggressive and in-your-face moments from No Love Deep Web. It’s also a good parallel to Burnett himself, who is so quiet and reserved in interviews, yet transforms into a primal animal on stage, conquering his Ego and living his Id. But on a much more surface, obvious level, The Powers That B also delivers both the most interesting and experimental material of their career as well as the most immediate and aggressive. From the opening moments of “Up My Sleeves” until the final skitterings of “Death Grips 2.0”, The Powers That B is an intense roller coaster ride of varying emotions and styles. If this is truly the band’s last album, there is no way that they could have gone out with a bigger bang, having blown every one of their traits out to the extreme and putting them on full display. It’s a proud piece of work, summing up everywhere Death Grips has explored in the past and pushing them into new territories at the same time, a (possible) final monument to the journey this band has brought us along on since 2011.
Key Tracks (Niggas on the Moon): Up My Sleeves, Billy Not Really, Black Quarterback
Key Tracks (Jenny Death): Inanimate Sensation, Turned Off, The Powers That B, On GP