The career of Sacramento noise rap trio Death Grips has been one of the most controversial and bumpy rides in recent musical memory. Miley Cyrus may have shocked soccer moms with a new look and Justin Bieber may have said some questionable things about Anne Frank, but these deeds seem pretty small when compared to drummer Zach Hill snapping a picture of his penis and plastering it on the cover of a free album released against the wishes of a massive record label. Then there were the plethora of shows that the band bailed on without warning, the fan suicide note they left hanging on the wall of their abandoned Bottom Lounge performance, and the strangely quiet track “Birds” that made its debut during the chaos. Despite all of this, they still only managed to stay silent for a few short months before they dropped a brand new album on Facebook without the slightest warning of what was coming.
Government Plates comes with a lot of expectations. It’s the next record in the discography of a band that has put out some of the most genre-bending, creative, and aggressive hip-hop ever made. It’s the conclusion to a lengthy campaign of intense drama shrouded in mystery. It’s a reminder to the musical world that Death Grips is still more interested in progressing their art than explaining it. It’s not even clear if this is the ‘album’ the band hinted at releasing in 2014, or the soundtrack to an upcoming film being directed by the band’s drummer. The only thing we know about Government Plates comes straight from their Facebook page: “New release”.
The music does the talking, and at times it can be very well spoken. The first three tracks of the album feel like a new take on a familiar sound; MC Ride’s guttural screams and shouts cover dense electronic beats with throbbing bass grooves and dark undertones. The opener, “You might think he loves you for your money but I know what he really loves you for it’s your brand new leopard skin pillbox hat” is as bombastic as its title, featuring Ride shouting lines that sound more like demonic incantations than raps and powerful surges of booming sound reminiscent of No Love Deep Web’s “Come Up and Get Me”. This is followed up by “Anne Bonny”, a stellar song that is split like a two-headed serpent; one head devoted to a danceable synth melody, the other to a grimy beat and verses so intense they rival Exmilitary’s “Takyon”. The third track, “Two Heavens” is a spacy monster with an infectious hook powered by a pitch-shifted MC and punchy percussion.
After the initial trifecta of glorious cuts, however, Government Plates transforms into an entirely different beast. Each Death Grips album has presented a significant variation on the formula, and this record’s claim to fame is its repertoire of instrumental tracks that feature little to no vocal contributions at all. “This is Violence Now”, “Feels Like a Wheel”, “Overflow”, “Government Plates”, and “Bootleg” reduce MC Ride to a mere ghost in the background, chiming in only occasionally to deliver an anthemic hook. They rely on the strength of Death Grips’ intensely psychedelic production, and to great effect. “Feels Like a Wheel” in particular is driven by fascinatingly chopped vocal samples, and its successor “Overflow” has bass drops so impressive they’re practically capable of melting human flesh. If anyone dislikes Death Grips for their confrontational rapping style, this album might be a fantastic entry point.
The record wraps up with “Whatever I Want”, a closer track so amazing that I’m finding it difficult to suppress the urge to type this paragraph in all-caps. It combines the infectious dance beats and synth grooves of The Money Store’s closer (“Hacker”) with the depressing atmosphere and slow-burning interludes of No Love Deep Web’s conclusion (“Artificial Death in the West”), which results in a seesaw of a song that splits its time between being the catchiest banger this year and the most otherworldly contribution to music in the group’s whole career.
Reviewed by Danny Baldus