In an age where countless SoundCloud musicians vie for the fickle attentions of blogging tastemakers, Death Grips are the unlikely masters of hype. The California trio of vocalist Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett, producer Andy “Flatlander” Morin, and drummer Zach Hill (one half of Hella) have quickly become something of a cult phenomenon. Last year, their Exmilitary mixtape made waves with its vision of hip-hop as aural blitzkrieg. Much speculation (and the predictable cries of “sellout”) surrounded the news of the group’s signing to Epic, in an unprecedented display of major-label daring. This year, following the April release of their astounding debut The Money Store, the group booked tours on both sides of the Atlantic – only to cancel them soon after, in order to complete a second album. The blogs took umbrage, fans gritted their teeth, and the hype train rolled on.
On October 1st, the group announced on their Facebook page that “the label will be hearing the album for the first time with you”. Apparently, Epic wouldn’t confirm a release date until 2013; as a defiant gesture, Death Grips leaked No Love Deep Web under a Creative Commons licence – with cover artwork of the album title crudely scrawled on an erect penis. Of course, this has only gained them more notoriety, mostly due to the the penis. In one move, they’ve thumbed their nose at Epic, attracted much media attention, and curried favour with their fanbase. Naturally, speculation continues as to whether the whole affair was a carefully orchestrated publicity stunt.
Hype is all well and good, but what about the music? Compared to their previous releases, No Love Deep Web is the most starkly minimal thing Death Grips have done. While The Money Store assailed the listener from every direction with concussive lashes of sound, No Love Deep Web picks its weapons and sticks with them. The beats (all recorded by Hill, on both electronic and live kits) jump between ghetto house minimalism and twitchy breakbeats reminiscent of glitch kingpins Autechre, the latter displaying Hill’s wealth of technical prowess. Flatlander’s electronics are dialled back here; the synthesisers paint frigid monochrome backdrops of cavernous bass, the samples a scattering of coloured strokes among them. This new restrained approach to production opens the stage up to MC Ride, who delivers his most energetic and varied vocal yet. In addition to the furious, primitive hollering for which he’s best known, he actually raps on this record. Ride’s novel vocal diversity prevents the tracks from feeling sparse, driving them with his unhinged volleys of verse.
Thematically, No Love Deep Web is probably the darkest, most fatalistic record the group has done. Ride’s lyrics depict a character whose paranoia fuels their violent transgressions, via fractured stream-of-consciousness chatter. The character’s half-insane narration is unsettling; detached accounts of real violence (“You whimper while I check my phone”) contrast surreal, abstract images of death (“foam of feral reality forming on mountains of teeth / devour the hand, spit out the leash”). Album closer ‘Artificial Death in the West’ is uncharacteristically subdued, its minimal beat and lone echoing synthesiser accompanying an abstract lyric about seeing one’s own death. It’s a welcome departure from the assault that precedes it, and it bows the album out on a morose high note. There are a few moments where the lyrics falter, and the bleak self-destructive impulse reads more as teenage angst. On ‘World of Dogs’, for instance, in a couple of lines straight from his high school diary, Ride pleads: “Blow the lights out, take your life / ride the falling sky with me.” It’s a cringeworthy moment in an otherwise enjoyable song.
Ultimately, No Love Deep Web lacks some of its predecessors’ power. The infectious hooks that blared from every track on The Money Store, that made its maximalist intensity fun and rewarding enough to revisit over and over, are lacking here. There are still hooks, to be sure, but they either lack the musical propulsion to really draw in the listener, or they’re just not that catchy – a couple of tracks are disappointingly forgettable. Not that this album is meant to be accessible – quite the opposite. This is an album that needs repeated listens for best results. The production isn’t as direct as previous releases, but still has considerable heft; if you’re looking for a loud, dense hip-hop experiment, you could do far worse. As an evolutionary step for Death Grips’ sound (not to mention their marketing), it begs the question: “What will they do next?” One has only to wait until the music blogs erupt again in apoplexy. If No Love Deep Web is anything to go by, the hype’s worth believing – just not blindly.