Hardcore hip-hop used to be kind of scary, but now the “toughest” guys of the lot just seem like bloated parade-float parodies. Death Grips is actually scary, in the right kind of way, the way that releases floodgates of adrenaline. The group makes its major-label debut with The Money Store, an album that is frightening not so much in a “9mm shooting parallel to the asphalt” sort of way but rather in a “serpent with a ruby for an eye that turns you into stone” sort of way. It’s horror-movie sinister but delivered with enough force and talent as to make you forget it’s “just a movie.”
Last year on the lauded mixtape Exmilitary, the Sacramentan trio developed a blog-friendly formula that combined novelty with quality. Stefan Burnett raps, or howls, grunts and spits, like a cracked-out imp dislodged from his own circle of hell. His demonic lyrical onslaught does not always take the forefront on The Money Store, but his evocations of impaled heads, curb stomping, werewolves and Leatherface keep him from slipping quietly into the background. When Burnett casually mentions Linens N Things, it’s funny but simultaneously terrifying: This crazy fool has penetrated the suburban sanctum.
Burnett alone does not possess enough of the traditional skills of a rhyme-smith to carry the group, which is where the production by prolific math-rock drummer Zach Hill and keyboardist Andy Morin comes into play. It’s lo-fi with a purpose and focus, with every shard of noise and fuzz carefully placed to make the beat a chaotic yet intelligible assault. Sample-based hooks are few and far between; instead it’s the intricate, lopsided percussion that takes the spotlight. The pair makes every song sound undeniably Death Grips without seeming like a rehashing of the mixtape. A couple of songs from Exmilitary used diverse sample material from sources like Link Wray and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, but these tracks, while tuneful, seemed more like stoner experiments than full-fledged compositions, like the songs on The Money Store do.
The “big story” here of course, is that something this absurd, abrasive and antagonistic could find a release on a major label like Epic. Clearly Death Grips has not “sold out,” at least if that phrase means sacrificing an amount of creative license. It doesn’t appear that Epic asked the group to sanitize itself; just check out the album art. Likewise, the entire album is available for streaming on Soundcloud, which means the group’s original method of distribution will probably still reign supreme. What it does mean is that in 2012, an album that’s incredibly incendiary and challenging (while still entertaining) can gain recognition from the powers-that-be. Whether you want to whine or get excited about that is up to you. Listening to the record on the other hand, is not. Do it, or Stefan Burnett will find you.