Last week Death Grips dropped a new album out of nowhere — a really good new album — but considering it’s a spontaneous digital, free release, we decided it fit better in MOTW than AOTW (plus we wanted to give Blood Orange’s awesome new album some love). But let’s just get straight into it, because Death Grips sure as hell didn’t waste any time for intros –
The best way to wrap your head around Government Plates comes in two lines uttered by MC Ride (aka Stefan Burnett) on its single, “Birds.” He repeats both lines throughout the track, and says them clearly and slowly enough so you don’t miss a thing. The first sums up the uncomfortable corner Death Grips have fought themselves into this year, and the second nicely shows us how they get out of it.
First: “I got higher, I got fake.” It’s a line that says a lot about Death Grips right now, and for once I don’t think Ride’s talking about getting fucked up. I still believe Ex-Military was a debut that sounded dangerous and revolutionary, but flash forward just a few years and we’ve seen how much Death Grips have struggled with their popular identity, and overcompensated in a desire to keep that credibility. The label issues, the show cancellations, even the performances they actually did play this year were still missing either Zach Hill or Andy Morin. There’s also a serious elephant in the room: that even after the promise of breaking away and starting their own label, maybe their moment was over — isn’t it possible that they were beginning to sound a bit predictable? And that brings me to the most significant lyric Death Grips have delivered all year, done soberly and calmly in a way that we so rarely hear from Burnett:
This is the most important “Fuck you” of his career. See, at first “Birds” begins pretty typically for DG; the trio is charging right at you, Burnett’s yelling, Hill’s pounding his drums, and Flatlander’s riding a skipping, queasy beat – and then “Fuck you,” followed by one of the most laid-back and playful guitar riffs of 2013 … from Death Grips. And just like that, all the tension from this entire year, every complaint, every joke, every feeling that they had lost their edge and were inching toward self-parody just evaporates. We’re listening to a whole new Death Grips. Hill’s drumming sounds restrained in these moments, Flatlander’s production floats just like that curlicue of a guitar riff, and Ride raps in a slow, concussed slur that brings to mind Lil B of all people. They’re rejecting everything expected of them at this point by fans, detractors, the industry, and the fellow artists who’ve hopped on their sound. Kanye West once asked, if you ever got power, do “you got the power to let power go?” and here Ride mutters, “I got power. It’s so cheap” with complete disdain. He eventually kills the titular “bird,” but the act is less violent and more redemptive when you realize the thing’s a bluebird, hitting these points home even further.
It sums up Government Plates perfectly; it’s the most off-kilter and unbalanced collection of tracks that Death Grips have ever recorded. In fact, Death Grips have never sounded less like a hip-hop group than on Government Plates. Ride raps less than ever before, pulling in the reins to give him a presence equal to the other members of their trinity. Sandwiching “Birds” are “This Is Violence Now” and “Feel Like A Wheel,” heavily textured tracks where Ride howls one or two phrases like a house diva from some hellish alternate universe. They’re the most extreme examples of the album’s tendency to make Ride just one more instrument of destruction in the arsenal — something Tom alluded to when commenting on how “Artificial Death In The West” was his favorite Death Grips track, and something that I noticed after seeing them play at Sasquatch much earlier this year. Look at the title track where Ride cuts his lines down to a footwork-y repetitive clip as if they were trying to recreate a DJ Rashad track entirely live. Even the more accessible tracks are drenched in murk; both “Anne Bonny” (named after the most famous female pirate in history) and “Two Heavens” distort Ride’s voice until he’s almost entirely inhuman, one of the only clear lines in the latter being “Fuck your idols.”
I get the distinct feeling there will be a new Death Grips record in 2014. Part of that is due to this album’s transitional feel — it’s very loose and some of these tracks feel more like sketches, a way to wipe the slate clean. The big exception (other than “Birds”) is the closing cut, and the longest Death Grips track to date, “Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watch).” It’s a juggernaut of a song, one of the most ambitious they’ve ever produced, mashing the sort of dismal synth-groans that would sound at home on Wolf Eyes’ “Black Vomit” with the sort of vocal-sample flurries you wouldn’t hear outside of one of the recent Oneohtrix Point Never tracks, and somehow coming out the other end with a bonafide house banger. Most of all, though, this album breaks the band out of the funk they’ve been in since the last time they spontaneously dropped an album, which seems to have cast bad vibes over their whole year. It gets me really excited to see what they do next — which, despite being a longtime fan and defender of Death Grips, is something I wasn’t sure I’d ever feel again. So Government Plates might not be perfect, but Death Grips aren’t aiming for perfection — they’re aiming right for your goddamn jugular.