Two and a half years ago, during the last proper South By Southwest before the pandemic, I sat down with the Phoenix-based rap group Injury Reserve at a Mexican restaurant in East Austin. The trio explained that their unconventional approach to music had evolved from unconventional circumstances. In the early 2010s, in the middle of the hip-hop desert that is Arizona, a tall and charismatic high school basketball player started rapping over beats by a redhead swimmer from a rival school. Soon, a much older, burlier employee from the Vans store his mother managed became their mentor and collaborator. Without much of a local rap scene to build steam in, the trio — who eventually took to calling themselves Injury Reserve — started doing house shows around the Arizona State campus, often alongside indie rock and punk bands. With each successive release, their music morphed and molted, leading up to the self-titled LP they released on Loma Vista that year.
Injury Reserve was a wildly impressive statement album, colliding agile, imaginative bars from Nathaniel Ritchie and Jordan Groggs with Parker Corey’s deconstructed production in lots of fascinating ways. The project also wrangled contributions from a broad cast of collaborators including Freddie Gibbs, JPEGMAFIA, Rico Nasty, A-Trak, Cakes Da Killa, Aminé, and 100 gecs’ Dylan Brady among others. Whether taking the piss out of the hypebeast fashion industry over minimalist percussive tones on “Jawbreaker” or outlining a customized futurist manifesto on the booming “Jailbreak The Tesla,” it was experimental but accessible, unique but recognizable as part of a forward-thinking wave of festival-friendly rap acts. The horizons seemed wide open for Injury Reserve, but I had no idea their next album would make the self-titled sound basic and straightforward.
A few months after our interview, while touring across Europe, the group played a show in the back of an Italian restaurant in Stockholm. Given the unusual venue, Injury Reserve decided to put on an unusual show, an avant-garde improvised DJ set that resulted in a new kind of song for the group. Using the soundboard recording from that night as a sort of template and mood board, they set about making a new LP that pushed all of their weirdest impulses to confrontational new extremes. As the album came together across the first half of 2020, life kept serving up jarring inspirations for Injury Reserve, universal experiences like the pandemic that ceased their touring operation and the racial reckoning that stemmed from George Floyd’s murder. Then, about halfway through the year, Groggs died by surprise, which naturally sent his bandmates reeling. Eventually, a grieving Ritchie and Corey regrouped and finished the project, named after the Isaac Hayes song “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” per Groggs’ wishes. Tomorrow, that album will be released.
By The Time I Get To Phoenix is a strange and startling listen, a record that demands your attention and challenges your perspective released into an age defined by zone-out streaming bait. The album’s advance singles have communicated as much: “Knees,” a headblown slow-drift bombed by sharp, crystalline guitar chords, and “Superman That,” a frenetically chopped-up cry for help marked by ballistic programmed drums and Auto-Tuned moans out of 808s & Heartbreak. Both songs blur the line between physical and mental pain. Groggs laments about the way his coping mechanisms have wreaked havoc on his body: “My knees hurt ’cause I’m growin’/ And that’s the tough pill to swallow/ I need to put down the bottle.” Ritchie cries out, “Ain’t no savin’ me or you!” Despite a resilient spirit that pushes back against the darkness from time to time, this kind of despair looms large throughout the album. It’s heavy stuff, even the parts that seem to invert the laws of gravity.
The rest of the songs are similarly outré. With assists from a roster of wild minds including black midi’s Morgan Simpson and Georgie Greep, Danny Brown’s Bruiser Brigade affiliate ZelooperZ, Sadpony (aka Yves Tumor/Sky Ferreira/Kim Gordon collaborator Jeremiah Raisen), and refracted footwork mastermind Body Meat, Injury Reserve have woven together a darkly contorted tangle of sounds, a collage that hits like a barrage. Even the more musically straightforward tracks like “SS San Francisco” and “Postpostpartum” feel dystopian; even “Wild Wild West,” with its constant references to the Will Smith blockbuster, is darkly discordant. When “Bye Storm” rounds out the album with a sample from Brian Eno’s “Here Come The Warm Jets,” it’s like smoke clearing after a battle. Except as one key lyric from the album puts it, “The smoke never clear/ Strap up your own boots it’s all uphill from heeeeere!”
There are so many blurts and blasts and growls and wails, most of them assembled in counterintuitive ways, that you might not even notice at first that there’s still a rap album happening within the chaos. But Ritchie and the late Groggs are in there, talking their shit, working through their trauma, making sense of the sensory overload in a world marked by 5G towers and hand sanitizer and constant death. There are lines that suggest the unmoored mental turmoil documented here is more relatable than you might think: “Scared to have kids because the world going through it”; “You better run and hide/ Take your ass inside/ If you don’t go breath the air you might stay alive”; “It rains it pours, but damn, n***a, it’s really pouring.” There’s also, on “Top Picks For You,” what sounds like a tribute to Groggs that mines weird tenderness out of a world guided by algorithms: “I scan the room, I see bits and pieces of you scattered/ It’s those same patterns that gon’ get us through the next chapter/ Your blood runs through this home/ And your habits through much after/ Grab the remote pops up something you woulda watched/ And I’m like, ‘Classic’/ This some shit I woulda seen you watching and laughed at.”
The words aren’t the only glimpses of familiarity. In a world after Death Grips, Moor Mother, Clipping, Earl Sweatshirt, and Armand Hammer — after Liars and Radiohead, after Aphex Twin and Venetian Snares — it’s not like By The Time I Get To Phoenix is an album with absolutely no reference points to latch on to. There are even some flashes of such eminently mainstream influences as Kendrick Lamar (parts of the album could exist within the deeper crevasses of DAMN. and To Pimp A Butterfly) and Kanye West (those screams on “Footwork In A Forest Fire” feel airlifted in from The Life Of Pablo). Yet if there is precedent for Injury Reserve’s transgressively noisy post-rap approach here, that doesn’t make By The Time I Get To Phoenix any less fearlessly abrasive. The question of whether the music is truly groundbreaking becomes secondary when it makes you feel like the ground beneath you is breaking right now.
Notably, Injury Reserve are self-releasing this one rather than continuing with Loma Vista, and they couldn’t have demonstrated their independence much more dramatically. By The Time I Get To Phoenix will be a polarizing release. It isn’t one I imagine a lot of people listening to on loop as comfort food. It’s an album built on risks that, more often than not, end up yielding rewards. These songs blow open even wider possibilities for what Injury Reserve might become in the future, as they push forward without the bandmate who was an older brother and grounding force for them. It’s not just a stepping stone toward something greater, though — it’s a landmark. Next time they sit down with an interviewer to tell their story, it will have a lot more unexpected twists and turns, with an even more surprising soundtrack to match.
By The Time I Get To Phoenix is out 9/15.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Lil Nas X’s MONTERO
• Lindsey Buckingham’s new self-titled solo album
• Moor Mother’s Black Encyclopedia Of The Air
• Bad Bad Hats’ Walkman
• Adia Victoria’s A Southern Gothic
• José González’s Local Valley
• RP Boo’s Established!
• Florry’s Big Fall
• Carly Pearce’s 29: Written In Stone
• Carcass’ Torn Arteries
• NCT 127’s STICKER
• Yvette’s How The Garden Grows
• Herb Alpert’s Catch The Wind
• Alexa Rose’s Headwaters
• Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Emile Mosseri’s I Could Be Your Dog (Prequel)
• Hot Chip singer Alexis Taylor’s Silence
• Cynthia Erivo’s Ch. 1 vs. 1
• Melissa Etheridge’s One Way Out
• MONO’s Pilgrimage Of The Soul
• Thrice’s Horizons/East
• H3000’s H3000
• Mini Trees’ Always In Motion
• Candlebox’s Wolves
• Daughtry’s Dearly Beloved
• LILHUDDY’s TEENAGE HEARTBREAK
• Enrique Iglesias’ Final
• Billy Idol’s The Roadside EP
• Soul Blind’s Third Chain EP
• Metronomy’s Posse EP Volume 1
• A 25th anniversary edition of Buena Vista Social Club
• Dehd’s Flower Of Devotion Remixed
• The Beths’ live album Auckland, New Zealand, 2020