Death Grips Jenny Death

[Harvest; 2015]

Styles: rap, electro, rock, inauthenticity, estrangement
Others: Shabazz Palaces, Dälek, clipping, Tera Melos

Death Grips reached full disclosure at the very beginning of their arc. On the first track (“Beware”) of their debut mixtape (Exmilitary), MC Ride betrayed the trio’s entire philosophy and program when he barked, “But the path I walk alone.” Since this declaration in 2011, the Sacramento collective have taken in major-label crossovers, major-label double crossings, dick pics, Björk appropriations, and tour no-shows en-route to their spontaneous “break-up” last year, yet its war cry seems to have been forgotten by every commentator and consumer who reacted to their famed contrariety with bemusement. These followers charged Death Grips with being either poseurs or spoiled brats, neglecting the band’s originary statement of intent to resist, subvert, and avoid prescribed routes through the music business and life itself (not to mention common courtesy).

If they had been a little more attentive though, they would’ve heard Stefan Burnett, Zach Hill, and Andy Morin striving to forge their own individuality and independence via music that was itself about the individual’s struggle to maintain his or her independence in a conformist and dependency-imposing world. In NO LOVE DEEP WEBB’s “Come Up and Get Me,” there was the hermetic “Fuck the world;” in niggas on the moon’s “Black Quarterback,” there was the self-effacing “abrogate me;” and now, in 2015, there’s Jenny Death.

The beauty of Jenny Death, and of the Death Grips story itself, is that it testifies to the fundamental tension between the private and public functions of art. They dramatize how the urge to express yourself is counteracted by the urge to avoid the homogenizing, diluting, and vulgarizing effects of the common languages and conventions necessary to self-expression.

Accordingly, they bombard us with pulsing openers like “I Break Mirrors with My Face in the United States,” which bristle with Ride’s nervous energy and exasperation, with the stress and indignation he wants to offload onto everyone in earshot. Over rapidly oscillating synths and widening electro-yawns, he bellows in the attempt to share his bile and his own irate self, yet the very same song communicates his trenchant opposition to the “mirrors” necessary to do this, to the public signs and symbols that, at best, will only assimilate him and his spleen into generalized types, while jettisoning everything particular and unique. As the unrelenting drum machine and one-way bass are sprinkled with hyped bleeps, he underscores this hostility with the rant, “Too many mirrors wear my face/ These broken mirrors take my place,” in the process affirming the futility of his own art.

If these artistic and existential concerns were only sprinkled through Death Grips’ earlier statements, Jenny Death expands on them to pitch a sustained attack against the disappearance or impossibility of authenticity in today’s media-saturated and image-obsessed society. With tirades like the vortical “Inanimate Sensation” and the rock-heavy “Why A Bitch Gotta Lie,” themes of constraint, fraudulence, and tameness come to the fore and reach a terminal level of cohesion.

In the former song, the constant shifts, slides, and sinkages of the white-light electronics underpin Burnett’s ornery raps on the passivity, alienation, and false consciousness inherent to our iExistence, in which we choose the automated, ready-made, and mass-produced life over a more self-directed and socially engaged alternative. He imprints the woozy detachment of Morin’s production with indictments like “I revel in slightest lack of acquaintance,” condemns our modern selves as fundamentally “counterfeit,” and ends with the confession, “I like my iPod more than fucking.” Even noted egos Axl Rose and Rick James are name-dropped in the single’s 4th verse, with the couplet “Rick James on the cover/ Running through your lover” calling us out for our risible tendency to identify as much with pop stars as with our nearest and dearest.

For Death Grips, this crutch of forming an identity out of empty signs, cocooning ourselves in media, and subserviently adhering to fashion lands us with an inauthentic life where our true selves and essences are either submerged or drowned entirely. They see modern civilization as little more than an instrument for suppressing human nature, a nature Ride bullishly mourns in the buzz-cutting “Turned Off.”

Here, an untiringly aggressive riff and Hill’s turbulent drumming underwrite his protests of having “All [his] windows blacked out” and of being “a man down.” He tells us, “Can’t look me up/ I don’t exist,” highlighting not only the evaporation of his own, better self in the face of subordination and submission to the dictates of society, but also the residual vacuum of blind aggression that would have him leave a “Trail of anonymous casualties.” Safe to say, his anger is matched only by the spite emanating from Hill, Morin, and — for one time only — Tera Melos’ Nick Reinhart, and while their guitar-swaddled malice has invited cries of “nu-metal” by some in the TMT office, it throws up enough cagey syncopation, blistering percussion, and unexpected futurism to disassociate itself from the likes of Chester Bennington and Fred Durst.

But what Jenny Death also throws up in the end, beyond its view of a repressive, alienating, and sham world, is the deeply pessimistic conviction that the hold this world has on us is so pervasive that it penetrates into our every action and thought. On “The Powers That B” — the album’s centerpiece and arguably one of Death Grips best songs — Ride denies all comprehension of and control over his own actions when he hisses, “I can’t know what I’m about to do.” At this point, Morin and Hill launch into a torrent of a chorus, a downpour of torpedo wah-wah and biting snares that goads him into shouting, “I’ve got the powers that b/ Running through me,” a rhyme that denounces his every act as a mere function of the languages, laws, norms, dogma, intentions, and desires instilled into him by other people.

These other people — be they authority figures that punish disobedience or friends who’d eventually reject him if he didn’t reproduce their beliefs to a sufficient extent — move through him when he moves, thereby dispossessing him of his own actions. He attests to this dire state of affairs, as the computer-interface breaths of Flatlander’s production rise and fall inhumanly, spitting out such lyrics like “I’m not acting” and “Can’t fuck with the physical world/ ‘Cause I comply with the powers that b.” In doing so, he and his band renounce all possibility of challenging the hegemony of a domain that, in having its codes and conventions internalized by its subjects, make it almost impossible for these subjects to even conceptualize what a legitimate challenge to its dominance might look like.

In a peculiar way, this resigned acceptance of constraint and obedience has its counterpart in the stylistic deviation that Jenny Death represents. Being more approachable than the fractured niggas on the moon and their most accessible venture since The Money Store, half of its 10 tracks feature (often distorted) guitar (provided by Nick Reinhart from Tera Melos and Julian Imsdahl, an old high-school bandmate of Hill’s) as the core musical element, leaching the group of its individuality. Admittedly, numbers like the semi-psychedelic “Centuries of Damn” and the constantly racing “Beyond Alive” aren’t forerunners to some horrible strain of nu-nu-metal, yet they nonetheless lack the distinctiveness and eclecticism of Death Grips’ previous material, operating too much within familiar rock tropes to stand apart from the masses the three-piece take pleasure in denouncing. On their own merits, these songs and their shifting dynamics wouldn’t present much of a problem, but because “Beyond Alive,” for example, castigates “Frightened people” and “Cowards” for playing their “fucking part” and being glorified automatons, there seems to be a latent hypocrisy in its recycling of common musical signifiers. Then again, maybe this inconsistency was intended to subtly affirm that, even when one party criticizes another for their slavish conformity to a certain principle, they only ever do so from a position of slavish conformity to the supposedly higher principle of “non-conformity.”

And according to yet another alternative perspective, this tension returns us to the very crux of the Death Grips project. From the very beginning, Hill, Morin, and Ride have tasked themselves with exposing the conflicts latent to the institutions of art and of “life,” and if nothing else, the process of expressing yourself in a language that isn’t yours, of constructing uniqueness via the reconstruction of non-unique media, is one that’s fraught with contradiction and paradox. For a while, it appeared as though Jenny Death would be the perfect culmination of this vision, and as though the band’s exit from the music scene was in part an admission that they can’t communicate their individuality without losing it. But even if they are aware that “being an individual” is simply a nice way of saying that someone has willingly taken their allotted place within a system of signs, they’ve undermined any impact a breaking-up gesture might have made within the context of the album by staying together and booking a world tour. With this one-eighty, Jenny Death loses something of its critical and polemical edge.

On the other hand, the whole record is consumed with the argument that modern life is dependent on lies, personas, superficiality, and bullshit, so it’s only fitting that they’ve invalidated their own allegedly sincere announcement of disbanding and organized a no-doubt lucrative set of concerts. Of course, this shtick of saying one thing and doing another might already be wearing a bit thin with the fans and the critics, yet it’s safe to say that Death Grips don’t really care about our patience. So long as they continue releasing albums as irascible, passionate, and relevant as Jenny Death, and double LPs as schizophrenic as The Powers That B, they shouldn’t either.

What’s more, the record ends by implying that the band was meant to capitulate to the music industry’s brand of homogenization all along. In gloomy closer “Death Grips 2.0,” sci-fi electronics and a rattling drum machine evoke some kind of computer program designed to subjugate human beings, and it’s the very generic, de-personalized, and dystopian quality of the track’s futurism that signals the success of this program and the failure of Death Grips to escape its de-individualizing effects.

Links: Death Grips - Harvest

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