I was raised to hate rap music. My dad told me that it was all profane garbage and that it would rot my brain. My uncle told me that it had caused an entire community of people, already living in poverty, to fight over albums and sneakers. So, for the longest time, I didn’t realize that hip-hop was/is the most important musical movement of the twenty-first century.
“Black culture used to be a lot better,” once said my uncle. I can see where he’s coming from. After all, certain sub-genres of rap have done more damage than perverting the minds of good, Christian, suburban youths. At their worst, they glorify and promote violence, misogyny, and crime. But to characterize the entire genre as crap, like my dad, uncle and countless other older, more close-minded white folks, is simply ignorant.
One of the most important rappers of the twenty-first century, and one of the most beloved is, of course, Kendrick Lamar. With his second full-length project, 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, he changed the landscape of hip-hop. Not only was the project a prophetic concept album that gave a voice to the voiceless, it was also an incredible change-of-pace for mainstream hip-hop: for once there was a cerebral album to which everybody could relate, but one that everyone could also bump to on the way to football games through the speakers of a Toyota Camry. But sadly, at the time of its release, and for several years afterwards, I was too close-minded to realize just how important rap music was.
In fact, it wasn’t any grand statement like good kid, m.A.A.d city or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that would finally turn me towards rap music. Albums like these didn’t necessarily appeal to people who were new to the genre. They were perfections of a well-established type of music, not a revolutionary sea-change in the sound of it. To me, the albums generally heralded as classics didn’t sound any different from the garbage that you might catch being pumped through the hallways of your local public middle school. What finally did get me to start taking the genre seriously was not a re-visitation of older classics, or trying to catch up with newer ones, but listening to an album, insignificant by most standards, that took every single problem that I had with hip-hop and cranked it up to ten: The Money Store.
Death Grips is comprised of instrumentalists Zach Hill and Andy Morin and rapper MC Ride. Together they create some of the most vile, overblown, disturbed hip-hop music that has been allowed into music festivals. They are one of the most polarizing groups to ever be awarded a “best new music” label on Pitchfork. After the release of their debut mixtape, Exmilitary, they were somehow signed to Epic Records, and apparently given full creative control over their commercial debut. What crawled out of the studio is indeed an abomination. However, it may also be an incredibly important work of postmodern art.
The Money Store opens with “Get Got,” one of the catchiest songs on the album. It starts with the refrain, which is a sped-up and looping conga/bongo beat that serves as a counterpoint to the song’s main theme. MC Ride’s voice comes in after two repetitions of this loop with a nursery-rhyme-like chant. It’s not particularly enjoyable, nor sustainable. Fortunately, it only lasts for ten seconds before a complete non-sequitur replaces it. It almost sounds like the entire instrumental takes a gulp of fresh air before the track dives headfirst into a swirling mass of cacophonous synthesizers, pummeling bass, and punishing drums. The synth lead on this track is quite possibly my favorite use of a synthesizer in a song ever. “Get Got” is followed by another highlight: the more abrasive “The Fever (Aye Aye).” Whereas on the previous track, individual words may have been discernible, “The Fever” might as well be an ape chanting over air-raid sirens. The only remotely musical sound on the album is the synth lead on the hook, another excellent use of the synthesizer. It’s remarkable just how catchy the hooks are, considering their instrumental make-up and subject matter. These songs add up to far more than the sum of their parts, which, from the sound of it, is mostly samples of construction-sites and metal being thrown down the stairs. Some lyrics from “The Fever” include:
Let me off, screeching halt
Not my fault
Ankles tied to cinder blocks
By any means necesserated
Blade cut me
Sewer drain grated
Lurking in the deadest spaces
MC Ride is clearly no poet, but he manages to string together phrases and words that somehow create a vivid image in the listener’s mind. The lyrics above create the image of a bleeding MC Ride being dragged through the street, tied to a car, his feet weighed down by cinder blocks. The lyrics on the album are mostly just word-salad, dressed with blood and garnished with teeth. Other highlights include “I’ve Seen Footage,” a clear homage to old-school hip-hop and a song about being desensitized to violence; “System Blower,” which samples the sound of a woman grunting as she serves in a game of tennis; and the closing adrenaline rush “Hacker.”
The miracle of this album is how well it embraces what so many people view as negative aspects of hip-hop. The hyper violent blood-lust, the speaker destroying bass hits, the seemingly incoherent babbling: it’s all here. While the music on the album is sincere, I can’t help but wonder if it is also a slight satire. Death Grips have taken modern trends in rap music to their logical conclusion. While modern classics will endure as perfections of the modern sound, I suspect that Death Grips will endure as its postmodern antithesis. And yes, now I can appreciate more conventional hip-hop. But sometimes you just need an album that says “screw it.” And for forty minutes, The Money Store does just that. Loudly.