Monday, April 16, 2012

ALBUM REVIEW: Death Grips - The Money Store

By Steve Jones.

Death Grips are a Sacramento-based group consisting of producer Andy Morin (a.k.a. Flatlander), producer / drummer Zach Hill (a member of too many projects to mention), and vocalist Stefan Burnett (a.k.a. MC Ride).  They make music together, which includes the Death Grips EP and Exmilitary mixtape released last year.  The Money Store is their debut album on Epic Records.

Now that the mundane shit is out of the way: 

The Money Store is an irresistibly nightmarish collection of catchy experimental hip hop that will whip your ears and leave you begging for more.

The leak has only been out for a few days (Death Grips have since provided listeners with YouTube and Soundcloud links for the album in its entirety), but it's already attracting a lot of warranted attention.  And I don't mean to toot our blog's own horn, but I will direct you to the fact that Exmilitary was collectively our second favorite album of 2011.  Most of our contributors, myself included, were excited for this record.  As a critic (however amateur a critic), I did approach The Money Store with a cautious degree of skepticism, but I believe that just caused the album to impress me all the more.

This album shouldn't work.  It is a much more accessible major label offering from a group who previously had gained their fans by releasing free music with an unrelentingly abrasive sound and a pervasive DIY aesthetic.  On paper, it looks like a betrayal, but in practice, The Money Store sounds every bit the logical successor to Exmilitary, not forsaking its formula but playing with it, improving upon it, and taking it into directions I don't think anybody could have predicted.  MC Ride's brand of hellfire yawp is as frightening as ever, but the exploration of his calmer vocal registers provides some enlightening contrast and shows off more of his rapping chops.  Zach Hill's impressive drum skills play an even more centralized role in many tracks, and the production is some of the most complex and inventive that I have heard on a hip hop album in years.

The opening track, "Get Got," is more understated than the bombastic assault of "Beware," but it reveals many of the new tricks Death Grips use on The Money Store.  The drum beat catches attention first before the two main driving forces take over.  One is the wailing electric guitar sample, which adds a catchy sense of melody that was largely absent on Exmilitary.  The other is Ride's delivery, which is itself the percussive impetus that propels the song forward, and his almost shockingly quiet voice allows a great moment in the last verse where his speech becomes louder and more manic.  It reflects the brutality of the words well, which at that point are, "drilled a hole into my head / pierced the bone and felt the breeze."  The rest of the lyrics contain similarly poetic surrealism, with references to the enigmatic god Abraxas (a reference I haven't heard since Revolutionary Girl Utena), lycanthropy, and being "born with a ski mask on my face."

"The Fever (Aye Aye)," is more prickly, but it still manages to use synths and distortion to create one of the catchiest refrains of the year.  Honestly, that's the story of the album, using noisy sound experimentation to craft highly addictive hip hop.  And it's fun hip hop, as is apparent on the deliberately old school "I've Seen Footage."  Even the skipping time signature of the track "Lost Boys" comes across as natural with Hill's drumming expertise, and it serves to further unhinge the album in a way still pleasing to the ears.

I could write at least a paragraph on every song on this album. Each one is so distinct, so dense, yet so unmistakably Death Grips that it is almost an insult to gloss over them, but I'll restrict myself to two more exemplary examples.  First, "System Blower" is the very definition of a banger track.  I had my mouth agape in a huge smile the first time I heard it, just because it is such a relentless attack on the senses, with bass and sound explosions threatening at any moment to blow your system (or your eardrums).  And my personal favorite track cements The Money Store as one of the weirdest party albums ever conceived.  "Hacker" is basically the Death Grips version of a Daft Punk song.  The disco and synth pop influences can be heard, but its the way that the track builds, adding one interlocking layer of sound after another, that elevates the song far above your typical dance floor fare.  The music hits hard, but Ride's "capslock-personified" delivery and lyrics are what create an unforgettable experience.  It's the gleeful absurdity of exclamations like, "I'M IN YO AREAAAA," and "GAGA CAN'T HANDLE THIS SHIT," and "TEACHIN' BITCHES HOW TO SWIM," that makes "Hacker" such an instant love (although my personal favorite line is the one-off "POST-CHRISTIAN SHIT / POST CHICKEN AND THE EGG ADDICTION SHIT").  The album's most accessible track is a great example of Death Grips' refusal to adhere to any voice but their own, and it is a refreshing voice to hear.

Throughout The Money Store, music and lyrics combine with all of the allure of a good nightmare--the kind you cannot escape from, but also the kind you do not wish to escape from, if only to see what will happen next.  Neither the record nor its songs go for the ease of a start-to-finish narrative, or the baseness of shock horror, but rather they subscribe to the school of surrealism, of crafting imperceptibly real worlds which frighten and bewilder and attract us.  The flow from track to disparate track is obscured and winding, but it sounds as natural as anything.  Its strangeness and unfamiliarity is its draw.  It is contradictory and revolutionary.

Whereas Exmilitary accurately simulated an act of war and pitted itself in an abusive relationship with the listener, The Money Store recontextualizes its blows.  The abuse is still there, but this time around it is more consensual, more loving.  The S&M relationship depicted on the cover is a good portrait of how this album treats its audience.  The psychology is complex, but the end result is too enjoyable to worry about it.  I could continue to wax poetic, or I could listen to the album again, and I know what I'm going to do.

You should too.

Score: Decent-to-Strong 9

Stream the full album via Soundcloud below:

 The Money Store by deathgrips

(Steve Jones is in your area.  Find out what he is up to in your area on his Twitter @vestenet.)


  1. Decent-to-Strong... that sounds familiar.

  2. Haha, yep. This blog owes its existence to The Needle Drop forums, so I use Anthony's rating system in homage to that fact. Plus, I like the compromise between the draconian 10-point system and the absurdity of a 100-point system.