My brother likes to tell the story of the first time he and I watched Star Wars. The film was a watershed when it was released, and age had not diminished its power when my brother and I watched it for the first time in the early 90’s. My favorite part of the story, though, is the part that he glances over (and I’ll be sure to point this out the next time he shares this anecdote) — his reaction to hearing that Star Wars had sequels. “There’s more?!” he exclaimed, excited to know what could possibly come next and relieved that he was not the only person who had enjoyed the film.
Sounds like nonsense coming from the mouth of a child, but Star Wars has become so ingrained in pop culture that it is easy to forget how dark and strange it is — there are two violent altercations in a popular bar in less than ten minutes (one ending with dismemberment, the other ending with the death of a bounty hunter), one good guy loses his family while another loses her entire home planet, an argument in a boardroom is settled by psychic choking, gallows humor is found with a near-death encounter involving almost every sympathetic character in the film, a hero gets his head chopped off, and one of the most celebrated characters in the film communicates entirely in purring growls. Star Wars, of course, didn’t connect with a mass audience because of these aspects of the film, but that audiences were willing to accept such odd and brutal material is a credit to both the collective public’s intellect (which is sadly underestimated more often than not) and the film’s accessibility due to its general themes, pacing, and distinct characters. In short, Star Wars is the best film featuring gay robots that everyone lets their kids watch.
I’m bringing up Star Wars as a reference point because I can’t think of anything that Death Grips’s first proper album, The Money Store, is more analogous with. Like Star Wars, The Money Store is a triumphant piece of work with darker undertones than one would expect out of something so accessible. I would compare it to other works of contemporary hip-hop, but The Money Store stands so far above everything I’ve heard in the past few years that I’m forced to compare it to cultural benchmarks. The only piece of work that flies in the same galaxy as this album is Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and even that album sounds tame when compared to The Money Store.
This is a hip-hop album at its core, but its individual pieces are so far removed from the genre that I’m concerned some folks will outright reject this album. Tracks like “Lost Boys” and “Double Helix” recall noise music and electronica, and curveball “I’ve Seen Footage” is a better pop song than I’ve heard on the radio all year. The real accomplishment here, though, is how Flatlander and Zach Hill find harmony, melody, and cohesion in so many disparate pieces. Every song includes a memorable chorus, and that includes single “The Fever (Aye Aye)”, which is made up of klaxons, bits of fuzz, MC Ride singing like a punk rocker, and the best drumming I’ve heard in some time. “Bitch Please” borrows keyboards from the 80’s to hilarious effect due to its dissonance with its title. Others have compared “I’ve Seen Footage” to old-school hip-hop, but the first song that came to my head was Gary Numan’s “Cars” due to its synths and great use of empty space. The chorus of “Hacker” recalls a mutated version of Muse’s “Take a Bow”. Make no mistake about it though — this is hard-hitting stuff, and comparisons to the Bomb Squad and industrial metal are definitely warranted. If it wasn’t so catchy, I might have hated all of this.
The closest that The Money Store comes to having a legitimate drawback is how MC Ride is utilized. Most hip-hop acts, no matter how experimental, push the vocals of their singers/rappers/whatever into the foreground. In this instance, though, MC Ride’s vocals are blended into the mix, contributing more to the overall sound than making him an outstanding part of this album. It’s a stylistic choice more than anything, but those who would pass on this album because they can’t hear what Ride is saying are missing the point. For one thing, putting him front and center would have made Death Grips’s agenda far too obvious to be effective (more on that in a bit). For another, you can always feel Ride’s passion and anger on every song, so even if you can’t make out the words, you can still understand the gist of what he is thinking.
This might sound like a cop-out excuse for poor songwriting, but that’s not the case here. Ride’s lyrics are more suggestive than anything, but there’s enough imagery to dig through in The Money Store to last us for a while. Openers “Get Got” and “The Fever (Aye Aye)” tell of police brutality in graphic detail, with the protagonist in the latter song resorting to drug use to accept living in such a brutal world, only to get beaten down for that, too. “Lost Boys” is an ode to those who have lost their way, and Ride both romanticizes their way of life and offers a stark perspective on their way of living. “Blackjack” tells the story of a young man making money through working the streets, and perhaps the system itself.
That is really the common thread through the whole album — the underclass finding meaning and victory in a world where the rich/1% are quick to squash anything approaching social change. Death Grips don’t explicitly take a side in this discussion (to do so would be too panderous), but on “Hackers”, Ride says of Wikileaks, “Most loved, therefore, most hated”. Loved, because they are telling the truth; hated, because those truths are ugly. The characters in The Money Store who seek enlightenment are met with brutal force, while those who retreat into their own worlds (drugs, etc.) are spared—for a while.
The joke/solution, then, is a complete overhaul of every system, which is about as improbable as an experimental hip-hop trio releasing a truly progressive piece of art on a major label. Again, Death Grips don’t make themselves out to be the solution to the world’s problems, which is a breath of fresh air in this genre, but that I’ve been able to pick up on just this much after only a short time with this album (during which I’ve had it playing for days on end) suggests that there are still more layers of meaning to be found in this music. Even if you’re not the kind of person who looks for meaning in everything they hear, though, you will still get a lot out of this album because, for all of its experimentation and discussions of brutal violence and drug use, The Money Store is loaded with pop hooks and never loses its sense of cool.
This is the best hip-hop album since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but it is far more than that. This is the most confrontational album since XTRMNTR, the best pop album since Merriweather Post Pavilion, and the best deconstruction of hip-hop tropes since cLOUDDEAD’s self-titled album, but in finding meaning in its violence and finding beauty in its tangled sound, Death Grips have fashioned their own distinct identity in the cultural landscape, and after reviewing album after album with nothing to differentiate the last one from the next, this is exactly what I needed to hear. The Money Store isn’t just an evolution in hip-hop or the best album of 2012 —it’s a new hope.
Purchase: Death Grips – The Money Store