Hailing from Sacramento California, Death Grips is an experimental hip-hop group that are as unpredictable as they are fascinating. The group consists of Zach Hill on drums, Andy Morin on keyboard, and Stefan Burnett aka MC Ride on vocals, who proceeds to violently yell whenever he speaks. The group came out of nowhere with their album ExMilitary in 2011. It immediately catapulted them into the spot light thanks to their unique and abrasive sound. This style of music started the band down a windy and unpredictable path in their musical career. Exmilitary may have launched the group’s careers, but was this album worth the hype it received? Or is it truly just a jumbled mess of noise?
Right off the bat of this album will instill you with fear. It starts off with a bone chilling sample from Charles Manson of all people, before heavy drums and curdling yells begin raging out from the speakers or headphones. The opening song “Beware” sets up the perfect example of what Death Grips represents, which are madman who are past the point of no return, thirsting for violence.
The drums are heavy and erratic while the production as a whole is glitchy and chaotic. This is a major factor to the album that keeps Exmilitary very intense. It’s the type of music that will leave you sleeping with the lights on. There are elements of punk, noise, and metal with more elements of electronic music in this album. But the main genre that Death Grips focus on is Hip-hop where they sloppily mesh the other genres into it to the point that their music comes off sounding very experimental.
To put it simply, the vocals on Exmilitary are insane. I honestly don’t know how MC Ride still has functioning vocal cords, but he somehow does. There are tracks in this album where he screams from the top of his lungs. Listening to his voice for the first time will make you wonder if he’s secretly a drill instructor or a prison inmate trying to scare you straight.
What’s also crazy about MC Ride are his lyrics. There are subtle messages and meanings in his words that are surprisingly clever. I’ve heard this album all the way through several times and I still find something new in the lyrics that just blows me away. A good example is from the track “Takyon (Death Yon)” from a verse early in the song. MC Ride as usual starts off with pure grit in his throat singing, “Subatomic penetration / rapid fire through your skull”. The first few listens I didn’t get it. But the meaning of subatomic penetration gnawed on my mind. I looked it up and found that “subatomic penetration” is a reference to a tachyon particle. It’s a particle in physics that moves faster than the speed of light. When I realized this I thought my mind was going to explode. It was at that moment I concluded that Death Grips is the real deal. I highly recommend looking up their lyrics. They are worth looking into because it adds a new dynamic to their group that makes you realize that there is more to them than meets the eye.
The production is pretty solid – noisy and filled with disarray. Death Grips goes out of their way to disturb the listener, painting disturbing images for the mind that will leave you disgusted and uncomfortable, even from the comfort of your own home. In general, they seem to revel in their own darkness, singing about demons, violence, sex, and drugs as if it were second nature to them. In a way this has a stronger impact compared to other hip-hop artists who glorify violence and their egos in their lyrics. With Death Grips it actually feels believable when you listen to them, almost like they perform these heinous acts like they were a hobby.
Even though I’m giving Exmilitary a lot of praise it still has its share of flaws. There were several moments in the album where MC Ride went completely overboard to the point it got bad. “Guillotine” and “Blood Creepin” in particular come to mind. Where MC Ride repeats the same chorus over and over again either saying “It goes” or “whoa oh oh” past the point of annoyance. It gets irritating very quickly and when you have to listen to it for a whole minute, it becomes almost unbearable. Then there is the song “Cut Throat” that is essentially just noise. It’s the wavering noises of MC Ride yelling while funky beats are come together in the background; they could’ve just dropped this track because it didn’t really add anything to the album. Of course, as I mentioned before the production is solid, but there are times where the structure between the drums, keyboard and Ride’s voice became very tangled. It was almost like they were drowning in their own sound, and it came off very disorganized – but then again this was probably what Death Grips was aiming for. After all they are incredibly unpredictable.
The group produces, without a doubt, some polarizing music. Right away when you listen to this you’ll either love it or hate it. It’s easily one of the more boundary-breaking pieces of hip-hop that is incredibly strange, but also very engaging, like witnessing a predator kill on Animal Planet; you’re slightly disgusted, yet fascinated all at once. It’s an intense ride from beginning to end. Expect to go into this album as if it were a street fight. Regardless, your ears are going to take a musical beating, there’s no doubt about that. But the experience is well worth it because in the end you are left with a truly unique album.
It is unfortunately difficult to recommend this album to everyone because this extreme style will split the listeners in half. The only recommendation I can offer is to give this album a try. It might surprise you and you’ll either thoroughly enjoy it or despise it and want to hear nothing more of this band. Either way, this is a fascinating listen that has never been witnessed before in the eyes of hip-hop.