Music Reviews

Death Grips Exmilitary

(Self-released - Rating - 7/10

Hip-hop, as a genre, is never really associated with obscurity. We associate rappers with fame and self-elevation, but Death Grips are (mostly) anonymous, releasing Exmilitary for free online – and its chaos and experimentalism make it intentionally difficult to enjoy.

Before I go on, I should clarify just how confrontational this record is. This is a dude screaming at the top of his lungs over beats ranging from gritty guitar riffs (I Want it I Need it) to menacing synth-bass hums (Guillotine). It is pure violence, pushing the limits of the listening experience; if that doesn’t sound intriguing, Death Grips is not for you.

From the beginning, there is an emphasis on the darker side of the human psyche, as the album’s opening track, appropriately titled Beware, samples Charles Manson, followed by the lyric “I am the beast I worship”. Hip-hop is conventionally egotistical, but it’s usually quite playful: Death Grips subvert these expectations, conveying the narrator’s selfishness with nihilistic anger, emphasising his repugnance. It’s a record whose central character is as difficult to stomach as the uncompromising beats. It’s not about sex and drugs so much as a destructive addiction to this hedonism, a grotesque hypermasculinity.

Elsewhere, Death Grips display a strong hardcore punk influence. The beat to anti-establishment track Klink is built around a sample of Black Flag’s Rise Above, and Death Grips’ main MC has a Henry Rollins style roar, never a hip-hop flow. Directness and cathartic power are valued over wordplay; it’s completely visceral rather than showy.

Which makes sense given that the only known member of the trio is Zach Hill – the flailing virtuoso drummer of math-rock legends Hella – who I’m assuming is involved in the brutal production. Perhaps Hill is the secondary rapper who provides us with a welcome break from the yelling, on a more sophisticated cut, the technophobic Culture Shock.

It’s a record that’s quite open to cynicism – Exmilitary is easy to dismiss as excessive and carelessly noisy. It’s going to polarise listeners, but it’s useless to criticise it for being so angry and unlistenable because that’s Death Grips’ prerogative. It’s kind of like reading a good book entirely in caps lock. It’s a spot-on realisation of their themes, but relentlessly, perhaps brilliantly, inaccessible.