Albums of the Year (#7): Death Grips – Exmilitary
Exmilitary is 2011's most brutal, twisted and direct challenge to commercial hip-hop's dominance. They call it a 'mixtape' – but this is a concession to its method of distribution (available free from the website Third Worlds) and its magpie approach to samples. Among mainstream and wannabe rappers, a mixtape involves using well-known instrumentals and adding badly-recorded raps. This is not what Exmilitary is. When Death Grips capture, torture and release Link Wray's Rumble, the result is an entirely new and ferocious beast, Spread Eagle Cross The Block – skater-punk rap with death metal screams: “I fuck the music, I make it cum.”
Unfiltered sub-bass, distorted samples and clashing drums (courtesy of celebrated drum-punisher Zach Hill) populate the tracks, but occupy them like sentinels – the empty spaces of Guillotine make the ascending, distorted synth blasts and bass drops all the more effective. This isn't a wall of sound, this isn't Ice-T and Bodycount's comedy rap-metal. Stylistically, it's a return to the sparse, intense electro approach of early hip-hop; but the palette is hardcore punk, scuzzy surf rock, broken dubstep and juke patterns.
MC Ride's psychologically intense approach to purging his demons through rap feels like a breakdown, a suicide note, but it is far more complex. There is "Hidden art, between and beneath” (from Guillotine) every extreme couplet. References to black magic, subatomic particles, serial killers and mental anguish culminate in Ride's most direct attack on weak-ass mainstream fakers, from Culture Shock: “You speak in abbreviations because real life conversation moves too slow / You're the media's creation, yeah your free will has been taken and you don't know / Choke yourself, fuck yourself.” That last part's the chorus.
Ride's lyrics are autobiographical, but he doesn't whine about his daddy-issues and spout repellent gangster clichés like Tyler the Creator. His voice, his words are excoriating, excruciating, difficult to take. Even the sex-and-drugs quest of I Want It I Need It is infused with a ragged, harsh menace that contrasts with the hedonistic lyrics, making it a terrifying voyage into darkness.
Live, Death Grips are a force to be reckoned with – MC Ride stares bleakly into the middle distance as Zach Hill, one foot bare, creates and destroys rhythms with a fevered intensity. A moshpit ensues as rock and rap fans alike scream Ride's lyrics back at him. When it ends, you lie cruciform on the pavement outside the venue, steam coming from your clothes, as you try and remember the last time you got bruised, battered and sweaty at a hip-hop gig. Death Grips make rap dangerous again: more dangerous than it's ever been. Feral, furious and utterly relevant. “It goes, it goes, it goes...”