Graded on a Curve:
Death Grips,
The Money Store

With The Money Store, Sacramento, CA trio Death Grips cross-pollinates hip-hop with the tactics of noise and drenches it all in a seething, apocalyptic outlook. Certainly not for everyone, it is however a surprisingly successful document, displaying high standards of variation throughout its onslaught of vitriolic ferocity.

To begin with The Money Store, there’s the major label aspect. This is frankly the most unlikely release to get corporate backing in quite a long time, but it’s important to remember that this sort of thing happens in cycles, and the way some people are reacting, you’d think Epic signed Borbetomagus or Masonna to a contract. The Money Store is indeed a crazy and uncompromising release, but it’s not completely off the map; as abstract and scorching as the record gets it retains a close enough relationship to previous models (mostly through the employment of rhythm) that its integration into the Sony Music Entertainment empire doesn’t so much inspire head scratching but instead feels like the latest example of a company feeling secure enough in its bottom line to attempt stepping out as the coolest bunch of executives on the block.

If that’s cynical, so be it. Epic may very well believe very strongly in what Death Grips offer on this quite impressive if undeniably divisive record, but that remains to be seen. Just because the musical landscape is different now than in any time since people realized a nice profit could be made by mass producing records doesn’t mean that the behavior of big money is somehow in need of reappraisal. The ‘90s major label feeding frenzy of indie and u-ground acts also resulted in some hard to rationalize signings, e.g. Boredoms’ Pop Tatari. The main difference here is the lack of an overflowing floodgate of sudden (and temporarily) hot properties ready for the pickings; digital avenues have greatly leveled the playing field against big label tomfoolery and anybody with internet access and speakers can discover new bands and test drive the records they want to buy (this directly led to an indie band winning a Grammy for Album of the Year). Yes Death Grips stick out like bloody appendages on the Epic Records roster, but in the end that’s not really anything new under the sun.

But far more importantly, if not quite as extreme as some have claimed, The Money Store is a riveting and somewhat groundbreaking listen. In combining the aesthetics of hip-hop, electronics, and noise into a bleak, at times unsettling landscape of shattered imagery, they feel like a new (if by no means wholly original) development. Comparisons have been made to Odd Future, but the edginess (or of you prefer, offensiveness) of that group registers differently from Death Grips. Odd Future often feels like just the latest extension of hip-hop’s transgressive possibilities. The Money Store comes off like a mixture of u-ground hip-hop, the far-out electronica of Kid606 and a despairing worldview that’s somewhat comparable to early industrialists like Throbbing Gristle.

And the specifics of Death Grips’ discomfiting vision are by design not easy to discern. The vocals of Stefan Burnett (aka MC Ride) are mixed throughout the album in a manner that resists any kind of narrative hold. Words, phrases and occasionally whole lines do jump out, but struggling to decipher the fabric of what’s being said is ultimately against the grain of The Money Store’s goals. Death Grips don’t want to tell an unpleasant but easily grasped story but instead desire to craft the equivalent to the often inexplicable imagery of a fevered nightmare.

This unholy trio of Burnett, producer Andy Morin, and drummer Zack Hill (a name some may recognize from Hella and numerous other projects) released the Exmilitary mixtape last year. Flipping the script somewhat, their debut is less caustic than their major label coming out party. A big reason is The Money Store’s lack of samples. Exmilitary featured clips and loops lifted from sources as disparate as Black Flag, Pet Shop Boys, The Castaways’ “Liar Liar”, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Pink Floyd, and that unrelenting motor-mouth of lingering societal discomfort Charles Manson, and the use of these collected reference points fashioned their initial effort as being much closer to the norms (if you will) of experimental hip-hop, though it was an immediately darker experience that didn’t necessarily fall in line with the genre’s expressions of intellectual complexity.

But a large segment of the planet’s population will derisively sum up The Money Store as “noise.” And it’s also true that aficionados of various noise sub-genres will possibly be quite taken with the contents of this LP. But Death Grips’ cacophonous blitzkrieg wields its effectiveness through precision, relying far more on force and velocity than on the elements of abstraction that lead many observers to erroneously label noise music as so much screwing around. However, it’s highly unlikely that people will volley the insult “my five-year old can do that” in this particular album’s direction.

And that reliance on power and momentum is in execution if not in sound very reminiscent of vintage hardcore punk’s primal fury, with Exmilitary’s Black Flag sample holding much more significance than being just a crafty loop. And the cover art only amplifies this connection, looking like a cross between prime Raymond Pettibon and a page ripped out of some S&M troll’s leather-bound sketchbook.

But The Money Store isn’t just one big bum’s rush of methodical if calculatedly submerged aggression. “I’ve Seen Footage,” “Hustle Bones,” and the closing track “Hackers” introduce periods of relative respite from the maelstrom. In fact, the appropriating and reconfiguring of the beat from Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It” makes “I’ve Seen Footage” feel like this record’s “single.” While a perfectly fine song taken in isolation, I’m a bit conflicted over its presence here, as hearing it in sequence highly normalizes The Money Store; while reportedly left to their own devices, Death Grips still managed to come up with a record that the suits at Epic could identify with strategically; amidst the hammer blows of third-degree negativity, this album holds in its nihilistic mid-section something resembling a party jam.

Conversely, tracks like “Lost Boys,” “Blackjack,” “System Blower,” and “Punk Weight” turn up the abrasive heat, and it’s in these excursions that Death Grips come closest to realizing the potential of hip-hop for Merzbow-loving Wolf Eyes fans. This means that The Money Store’s hip-hop legitimacy is roughly comparable to Last Exit’s relationship to jazz or Jandek’s general proximity to folk or rock. This record is certainly “there” in hip-hop terms, but its status as an idiosyncratic hybrid with likely garner some purist hostility.

Ultimately, “I’ve Seen Footage” might bode well for Death Grips’ future. Bands specializing in music of this extremity often have short qualitative life spans, either flaming out before they start to suck or unfortunately besmirching the vitality of their initial work with inferior product. I’ll still be surprised if these three are still together and cranking out top-notch material in two years’ time, but there is a chance that Death Grips will exceed expectations and wind down later rather than sooner.

With another album scheduled for the fall, it’s going to be interesting to hear Death Grips’ progress. Whether they’re destined for brevity or built to last, The Money Store is a major statement. It might be far from pretty, but it’s surely effective in its caustic vision.

Graded on a Curve: A-

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