‘The Powers that B’ Review
John Darr | Wednesday, March 25, 2015
It’s 6:19 p.m., and I’m in my dark, cramped, single dorm room with clothes all over the floor; I’m out of Nutter Butters. I got two hours of sleep last night. I have a six-page paper I haven’t started due tomorrow. I have to find a date for Saturday’s dance. My last yak didn’t do so well. I’ve got a season of Bob’s Burgers to finish. My bracket is destroyed. I have this music review to write. Someone’s knocking at my door again. “Come in, I guess,” I say.
“Are you okay, man?” asks a voice.
“I’ve had a migraine for four straight days now, if that’s what you’re asking, and I have to write a Death Grips review.”
“Oh Lord,” says Dan as he peeks his head around the corner of my desk. He’s a fashionable, tall fellow whose only shortcoming as a hipster is his lack of Death Grips fanaticism.
“Yeah, I mean their new record is actually pretty good, but I don’t want to write about it that much, and I sure as hell don’t want to go through the whole history of Death Grips again.”
Dan says, “Weren’t they the band that got picked up by a major label and then leaked their own album for free with one of the band member’s ****s on the cover?”
I laugh. “Yeah, this is actually the first album they haven’t released for free and the first one that they’re actually asking people to pay for.”
Dan looks interested. “What does it sound like exactly?”
“A lot of it is actually really guitar-driven. Whereas a lot of their past records really built up the ‘beats’ vocalist MC Ride (real name Stefan Burnett) who raps or yells over on catchy synth lines and massive, twisted samples ranging from Bollywood to Pink Floyd. The new record — well, actually, the way I’m phrasing it is kind of confusing. The new record, half of it was released last year. Like the whole album — it’s a double album — is called ‘The Powers That B’ and it comes in two parts, one of which was released last year and one of which was just released last week. So I guess I have to talk about both parts.”
“The first part is called N***** on the Moon, often abbreviated as NOTM, which is an odd title, because MC Ride, as the only black member of the group, has used every profane word in the book except for the one in the title I just told you. And he doesn’t really address race in his lyrics.
“But anyway, that record was basically built on the drumming work of Zach Hill, who’s been a core member of the band since day one. He’s always been bringing the fire with his beats, both acoustic and electronic. It helps that he’s one of the most technically talented and proficient drummers in the world. So for NOTM, he basically put a bunch of samples — drum samples, synth samples and samples of Björk singing — on an electronic drum set and hammered out the beats all by himself. They’re lightning fast, erratic and really percussive.
“MC Ride’s rapping is as crazy and ferocious as ever. His words sprint from insane violence to technology-induced paranoia to psychological terror and even symbolic social commentary over Hill’s relentless beats. I don’t know how much work Flatlander — the last core member of the band, the producer — put into the record, but there are some amazing moments on it.
“For example, the record’s first track, titled ‘Up My Sleeves,’ is about death and using your own destruction like some tool against your enemies — very kamikaze, a tactic which the group has referenced before. But anyway, there’s a moment on the track where everything cuts out, and MC Ride just describes this cemetery scene and contemplates the point of an ultimately transient existence and wonders if he even wants to know if anything matters. And all you hear is this nightly haze, this surrounding group of still crickets, unable to answer him, and capturing the environment perfectly. Death Grips are almost never quiet; the juxtaposition of their normal style with this moment of relative peace, and yet ultimate doubt, is stunning.
“There are moments like that all over the record. MC Ride raps, ‘I don’t talk to the help,’ clearly a reference to the past ‘unofficial’ slavery of black servants post-Civil War, before shrieking ‘help!’ repeatedly after that statement — contradicting himself immediately if we assume he’s calling for the people he just claimed to be independent from or higher than. There are just a whole lot of clever lines executed very well on the record.
“And then this new record, this second half of ‘The Powers That B’ that’s called ‘Jenny Death,” is instrumentally drenched in roaring guitars courtesy of Tera Melos’ Nick Reinhart and all in all is a far more acoustic endeavor. Zach Hill’s back on the acoustic drum, hammering out sick beats, and MC Ride’s yelling out these absurd lines. To be honest, I have no idea what most of them mean. But they’re pretty awesome. Like, do rap mantras get better than ‘I Break Mirrors in My Face in the United States?’ And what’s a better way to end your last record than by meeting Death on your front porch and having him say, ‘It’s been a pleasure, Stefan?’ Did I already tell you that MC Ride’s real name is Stefan Burnett?”
Dan smiles and laughs. “Yeah, you did.”
I laugh. “Alright, well I’m gonna have to write this review now. It’s probably gonna be really unfocused and mediocre. Sorry to kick you out.”
Dan shrugs. “I’m sure it will be great.” He disappears from view and the door starts to close.
The creaking stops.
“There’s an airhorn in the fifth track on the second album.”
“Oh. Okay. You know I probably won’t listen to it. Sorry.”
We both laugh. It’s true.
“It’s fine dude. Death Grips isn’t for everyone.”
The door closes. I look at the blank page on my computer screen. I realize that by some miracle, I haven’t been talking to Dan, but rather I’ve been writing this review the entire time.
Thank goodness it’s over.