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November 22, 2013

Death Grips, but just barely hangs on

Last Wednesday, Death Grips released its newest album, Government Plates, for free download on its website. A music video for each of the tracks on the new album was uploaded to YouTube along with the release, fueling some speculation that the album is actually the soundtrack for an upcoming film written and directed by the band’s drummer, Zach Hill. As is becoming the norm for Death Grips, there was no promotion around the record, or even a release date announced beforehand.

While Government Plates was released in a similar manner to the band’s previous effort, No Love Deep Web, the sound is a definite departure from earlier releases—with mixed results. Perhaps most immediately noticeable, MC Ride’s lyrics are not a focus here. For example, on “This Is Violence Now (Don’t Get Me Wrong),” MC Ride simply repeats some combination of the three bars: “This is violence now,” “This is,” and “Don’t get me wrong.” Without MC Ride’s usual stream-of-consciousness delivery, his presence feels less visceral and immediate than it did on earlier releases.

To add to this effect, producers Zach Hill and Andy “Flatlander” Morin toy with MC Ride’s voice much more on Government Plates than on previous releases. The effect is that tracks like “I’m Overflow” and “Feels Like a Wheel” feel somewhat unfinished. Particularly on the second half of the album, it is disappointing that MC Ride doesn’t deliver more than a verse, or even more than just a few lines.

While Death Grips’ instrumentation is aggressive on Government Plates, several of the beats are frustratingly repetitive. Specifically, “Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching),” by far the longest track on the album, feels like a confused attempt to prove that Death Grips is immune to the pressures of the mainstream music world—through, of all things, droning samples. While this is probably as close to true with Death Grips as it is with any other band, the decision to make this the song’s explicit message is questionable. Why would a band notorious for not showing up to live shows, for featuring an erect penis on previous album art, and for intentionally destroying their relationship with their previous record label care what anyone says?

And yet in spite of this, the record’s lead single “Birds” is a stronger testament to Death Grips’ ability to ignore what people say. The track features the most melodic instrumental I have ever heard on a Death Grips track, and MC Ride’s flow is so relaxed that he almost sounds like he’s singing. “Birds” works because it covers new ground, rather than simply being a new, more repetitive version of old models.

There are also a few tracks that successfully implement the sound of previous Death Grips records. “You Might Think He Loves You For Your Money but I Know What He Really Loves You for It’s Your Brand New Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” and “Anne Bonny” would have fit right in with the raw aggression on No Love Deep Web, and it’s a shame that this energy stops dead in its tracks on the second half of the album.

While much of the critical success of Death Grips has come from the band’s ability to consistently deliver unexpected and innovative music, Government Plates lacks an urgency that was essential to its early albums. Until this point, fans have put up with the antics of Death Grips because no other groups have been able to replicate the primal energy of their records and live appearances. Lacking this energy, Government Plates gives fans reason to reconsider their devotion to the band, particularly in light of the group’s recent series of live no-shows.

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