Their aim is true: Try as I might, I can’t hate Death Grips. When the Sacramento experimental rap trio signed to Epic Records it was a meteoric head fuck. When Death Grips canceled its summer tour, effectively screwing over the 2012 Sacramento Electronic Music Festival, I swore them off to a degree. Living above the Bike Kitchen and blowing off a commitment mere blocks away? Friggin’ amateurs.
The media largely praised Death Grips’ subversive punk aesthetic: leaking its second official album No Love Deep Web, airing out internal correspondence with the label, and virtually burning advance money on a residency in the Chateau Marmont. I, however, failed to see what was so punk about room service, since punk has never been synonymous with privilege.
Epic finally dropped Death Grips and rather than exist as untamed beasts of the music industry, the group inked a partnership with Harvest, a subsidiary of Capitol Records, and created its own imprint, Thirdworlds. By this point, attempts to define the band became futile—which is in part the aim of Death Grips, immunity to definition.
Then, earlier this month Death Grips released Government Plates without warning via its Facebook page. Within an hour links to the record were dead, the band’s website was down, and the comments section was 700 posts deep. Theories abound that Government Plates is not a new album like 2012's No Love Deep Web or its predecessor The Money Store (also 2012), but rather that the soundtrack to a film directed by band member and drummer virtuoso Zach Hill. Naturally, there’s no press release to either deny or confirm, so until someone comes forward or Hill’s film is streamed on the Internet, it’s merely speculation.
Regardless, the theory carries sway since Government Plates features fewer of MC Ride’s maniacal tirades, casting his contribution as a sample source to be looped in compliment to the instrumental compositions. One could imagine a film based around this soundtrack, based on the series of videos on Death Grips’ YouTube channel. It’s still unmistakably Death Grips, but Ride’s dominance here is subdued to aggravated couplets and repetitious declarations like “this is violence now” or “they creeping under my skin.”
The slight mutation in style makes Government Plates feel like a mixtape—a placeholder of sorts—rather than an official record. It takes the tableau of “Culture Shock,” off the band’s original mixtape Exmilitary, and treats it like the album’s foundation. There’s more dance beat to this collection than previous records would dare allow. Much of the experimental cacophony is softened, like the esoteric transmission segments of “Bootleg (Don’t Need Your Help),” or the synth flourishes thwarted by a broken interlude of backwards drums and glitched vocals on the near-seven minute epilogue of “Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching),”
The majority of the record strains the notion of MC Ride (a.k.a Stefan Burnett) as the group’s frontman; of Zach Hill and Andy Morin, a.k.a Flatlander, as the cavalry to Ride’s war path.
The absurdly titled opener “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” distinctly incorporates live drumming (in what feels like a first for the band), though it also bears striking similarity to the No Love Deep Web opener “Come Up And Get Me.'
Besides, “And You Might Think…” the remaining tracks on which MC Ride is given license to operate fail to eclipse the previously released track “Birds,” which sounds like Death Grips oscillating between harmless psychedelia and the intense rapture of a DMT trip. Tracks such as “Two Heavens” and “Anne Bonny” are strong, but “Birds” remains one of the group’s finest achievements, as it muses with clarity without sacrificing their trademark terror in noise.
The release of Government Plates was timed to exactly 13 months, 13 days and 13 hours after the release date of No Love Deep Web. Should this prove not to be an early peek into Hill’s upcoming film, it at least holds a fragment of significance knowing that. For me, it has renewed an admiration for the Death Grips oeuvre. The bad taste left in my mouth from past records’ fatty hype his now absolved by Death Grips ability to quietly give away a record without controversy. They’ve jumped no shark, burned no bridge, and bit no feeding hand in the making of this record.