This past Wednesday, Death Grips re-emerged from the underground lair they retreated to after skipping several live shows and summer festival appearances to drop an unexpected new album, Government Plates. Unsurprisingly, MC Ride (aka Stefan Burnett), drummer/producer Zach Hill, and keyboardist/producer Andy Morin eschewed a traditional release for their usual online channels — streams, a free download on Soundcloud, and on YouTube, where each of the 11 songs got its own video. We assembled a crack team of CoS staffers, as well as some friends from Dead End Hip Hop, The Needle Drop, and RedEye Chicago for a roundtable discussion of the album.
Dan Caffrey (Senior Staff Writer, Consequence of Sound): What struck me most about Government Plates was the lack of vocals. Although MC Ride’s presence is definitely felt, it’s more in repeated phrases and abstract vocalizations than the nasty stream-of-consciousness rhymes from other Death Grips releases. The record might be something that grows on me, but with less emphasis on his voice, the whole thing feels a little defanged, lacking the raw, energetic punch of The Money Store and No Love Deep Web. What did the rest of you think? Was the shift in the group’s sound an issue for you?
Myke C-Town (Managing Editor, Dead End Hip Hop): The lack of vocals, of course, and the pull back on the aggression were two things that immediately concerned me too. Upon first listen, following the first track “You Might Think He Loves You…”, I thought this was going to easily rival No Love Deep Web, but after a few listens, I was wrong. While I still like it, I’m not getting the same feeling I got from No Love Deep Web. The beats seem a bit more easily digestible and, with the lack of MC Ride’s frenzied hollers, the album just doesn’t come off as interesting to me. We don’t have songs like “No Love”, “World Of Dogs”, or “Lock Your Doors”. This time around, we get songs like “Two Heavens”, “Anne Bonny”, and “Feels Like A Wheel”, which are all interesting, but not on the same level as anything we’ve heard from them before.
Pat Levy (Contributing Writer, Consequence of Sound): Personally, I didn’t feel that Death Grips covered any new ground. The focus is less on total mayhem and more on creating droning dystopian soundscapes that MC Ride might occasionally hop on to yell over.
Ernest Wilkins (Digital Producer, RedEye Chicago): I might be in the minority here, but I kind of… like there not being a ton of vocals? They definitely made an attempt to create a sparser sound, and I’m a bit more interested in the music because of it. I think MC Ride can sound like a guy yelling random stuff on the bus at times, and frankly, it makes me like them more.
Kinge (Executive Producer and Editor-In-Chief, Dead End Hip Hop): You’re not alone, Ernest. Without having to decypher MC Ride, this one was a little bit more of a straightforward listen than the previous releases. His presence was still felt, but it was just in short doses, and that worked for me. Ride has a unique style to him, and it’s one that I have yet to fully adjust to. I didn’t walk away from this album a fan of Death Grips, but I did find this album way more tolerable than their previous releases, and in all honesty, it may be related to the lack of vocals. What about the rest of you?
Anthony Fantano (The Needle Drop): What really ended up killing a lot of these tracks were the short, repetitive instrumentals. I think I’d be completely fine with a lack of Ride’s vocal presence if songs like “Bootleg” and “Feels Like A Wheel” didn’t get outright annoying by the halfway point of the already short track length. And, that’s mostly due to a lack of ideas being presented throughout these songs. A lot of tracks here feel like mere beats that could have been fleshed out into something much more, but it just didn’t happen. All I can do is hope that the rumours are true, and that Government Plates is just the soundtrack to that film project we’ve heard Zach Hill is working on. That way, we can still count on a fully realized full-length from Death Grips in 2014. I’m starting to think that’s the case, since there’s been no mention of Government Plates being released physically, and there’d be no reason for Death Grips to partner their Third Worlds label with Columbia if they weren’t going to put out a physical package.
DC: Yeah, I heard about there being an accompanying music video/short film for each song, plus Hill’s mystery feature-length. So, maybe this is supposed to be more of a score than an album that stands on its own? I haven’t watched any of the footage yet, so maybe this will have more of an impact once I do (for the purposes of this review, I wanted to ingest it simply as an album and nothing else).
Dan Pfleegor (Staff Writer, Consequence of Sound): I think the album’s sudden, inexplicable appearance falls in line with Death Grip’s pattern of bucking expectations and promoting chaos, often resulting in confusion. This aggressive detachment makes it difficult to judge the context of the record. Google Image Search and torrential social media outpourings have overexposed certain artists and even watered down the sound. But Government Plates still feels like Death Grips, even if the vocals are minimized, or used as more of an instrument. The music is still crushing and claustrophobic. It felt like MC Ride was the warden of some hellish prison with a dilapidated central sound system. And I mean that in a good way. Do you guys think Government Plates will be as well received by fans of the previous records, or by club owners looking to book Death Grips for future no-show performances?
DC: To me, the answer is sort of complicated. Part of why people love Death Grips is because of their mystique. They’re one of the few artists out there who truly do things the way they want to without any sort of artifice. Although they sometimes come off like assholes, I don’t think it’s so much because they’re terrible people, but genuinely because they want the art to speak for itself. Will fans love or hate it? It’s hard to say. In light of their recent behavior , they seem to have pissed off a good deal of their fanbase, but then again, I think a lot of fans kind of love that. It’s a very love-hate relationship.
K: If they are fans of MC Ride, his sparse usage on Government Plates may not work for them. Club owners, on the other hand, may be apprehensive about booking them, which is understandable. They don’t know if they would even show up!
EW: I don’t give a crap at how “focused on art” you might be, you do a disservice to your fans by not giving them a show. Without them, you’re playing for yourselves. If that’s what you want, have at it! Just don’t expect us to support it.
PL: Even the most diehard fans have only had the “it’s art” angle to lean on, which makes this whole thing — both the record and their current status as a live band — all the more of a letdown. I was at the Bottom Lounge no-show in August, and I laughed apathetically as I watched the initial demise of a band’s relationship with (some of) their fans. The fanboys got real hyped for the first couple songs when it seemed like maybe Death Grips liked to come out to their own music already playing, but, after a certain point, everyone in the venue kind of realized that we were being played, and the entire room became the characters from Arrested Development when the Charlie Brown song is playing.
Other than album single “Birds”, this entire record feels like that show: a retreading of already covered material, where at points it doesn’t seem like they’re really “there.”
DC: Going back to Death Grips’ overall intent and message, what did Government Plates mean to you guys? Sorry, kind of pretentious and loaded question, I know. Obviously, the album just came out and is probably too obtuse to form any concrete opinion on what the group is trying to say, so I guess what I’m asking is, what did it make you think of? Did it feel angry? Energized? Paranoid? What kind of imagery did you pick up? The Money Store and No Love Deep Web weren’t exactly concept records, yet they both played to a very specific, almost mentally deranged sound. Was Government Plates this kind of album for you, did it say something else, or was it just confusing?
MC: To me, this album doesn’t come off as angry, paranoid, schizophrenic, or anything like that. It just comes off as weird. My feeling is, anyone can make a weird album, good or bad. It takes a special group to actually make you feel a certain type of emotion, like paranoia. I’m not positive if the instrumentals for their previous albums would have done that without the vocals, but I’m thinking it was 75/25 for me when it came to the vocals really controlling your mood when listening to a Death Grips release.
DP: The frustration of trying to make sense of Government Plates is offset by the chance to approach the record as a stand-alone output. The meaning is obtuse, but the raging emotions and devil-may-care attitude seething from tracks like “This is Violence Now (Dont get me wrong)” and “Im Overflow” are both easy to understand. I dug it and think I’ll be going back for future listens, especially if I’m being chased by stray dogs that have blood in their mouths. That may be the perfect listening environment.
PL: I’m with Myke. I didn’t really feel that the album raised any larger questions or had a particular agenda. It seems like a scattershot of songs that you could play at a party where everyone is on too much Adderall, and really nothing more to me. After my first handful of listens through the record, I haven’t been able to discern any greater meaning from songs like album closer “Whatever I want (Fuck who’s watching)”. It just brings the album to an end with over six minutes of repetitive droning that never seems to grow into any larger concept besides declaring definitively that Death Grips truly couldn’t give a fuck about who’s watching them.
K: That title is a little obvious, but I do think it embodies the general theme of the album throughout. It’s about being autonomous. I get a sense that they are sending a message about rejecting systems that are out of control. Death Grips does this by spurning their labels, not showing up to shows, and releasing albums seemingly out of nowhere.
EW: It’s very apparent now that this is the style of album Kanye wanted Yeezus to be like. It’s aggressive. It’s angry. It doesn’t give a fuck about you, your opinions, your Hamptons spouse, or anything that isn’t blowing up the way we process music. It’s funny, because Death Grips, in a way, reminds me of that kid we all went to high school with who was poor as crap, unpolished in every kind of way, but always had the best parties. Upon initial assessment, this album is going to need to grow on me a bit. It’s got a lot of initial energy and gravity, but that doesn’t mean I want to listen to it all the time.