Death Grips' entire career has been founded on a series of misunderstandings on behalf of the band as well as their fans. Despite being advocates of digital culture and 21st century methods of releasing music, Death Grips are still convinced that they are an ‘album band’ when in fact they are anything but. On each of Death Grips four albums, including Government Plates, there is a clear standout track* that can be taken out of the context of the record and shine on its own. Those songs, in order, are “Takyon,” “Hacker,” “No Love” and Government Plates’ outrageously long titled opening track. You’ll notice that what these tracks have in common** is that they make no attempts to hide what Death Grips are actually best at: unbridled aggression attached to an identifiable groove with heavy low end. This is where the second major misconception about the band comes in. No matter how much their fans try to intellectualize their music, presentation, or immature antics, Death Grips are at their core a Nu-Metal band, and not a very good one at that.
They’ve done a good job of hiding it over these last few years but it doesn’t take much to see that adorning an album cover with an erect dick and using a fan’s suicide note as a stage backdrop isn’t far off from the mix of hyper-masculine posturing and shock tactics used by, say, Slipknot, who incidentally also built their sound on a mix of chaotic percussion, shrill distortion, and rapping that crossed over to barking. And while the destructive wake that their fans left after Death Grips chose not to show up to their Lolla after show was nowhere near as extreme as the crowd at the infamous 1999 Woodstock, they are both part of the same nihilistic legacy. What separates this from the punk ethos that Death Grips’ supporters claim they embody, is that their actions come purely out of self-interest. They are perfectly willing to release albums through the major label system if it benefits them, but they are just as willing to fuck over their fans when it suites them as well. Because of this, it’s hard to construe their decision to release Government Plates for free as anything other than them taking the path of least resistance. And to be frank, given the lazily constructed songs on this record, even free might be a bit too much.
After the previously mentioned opening track, Government Plates quickly slides into autopilot. Continuing from the blown out sparse production of last year’s NO LOVE DEEP WEB, the songs on Government Plates are built from low quality samples and midi sounds pushed to their absolute breaking point. There are shards of melody that survive the transition, but are rarely developed upon. In fact, not much is developed upon at all. The songs mostly function as a binary, repeating two sections often completely unrelated by key or tempo until the track abruptly stops. Little attempt is made to transition between the two, and some of them don’t even put forth the effort to change the individual sections when they do return. On top of this lazy approach to song structure, the individual parts rarely move out of what we expect from Death Grips at this point. They are built to make you feel uncomfortable and keep you from engaging with the songs on any physical level. This kind of detached approach could work, but it stands at odds with the other direction that Death Grips explore on this record. A handful of songs, “This Is Violence Now” and “Feels Like A Wheel”, are based around repetitive grooves that, if it weren’t for their fractured nature, would come across as straightforward club tracks. Over these songs, and several others, MC Ride almost entirely disappears, only uttering a single phrase that is looped and beaten to death. Ride has never been, or has tried to be, a conventionally good rapper, but its hard not to interpret his absence on Government Plates as an extension of the lame lack of effort put into the underlying compositions themselves.
The only track on Government Plates where the band breaks out of their holding pattern (even the superior opening track is business as usual) is its lead single “Birds.” Here, Death Grips use negative space to their advantage, building tension and unease through a warped and detuned guitar. Though MC Ride’s lyrics are the usual mix of aggression and surreal nonsense, the starkness of the sound surrounding him paints a vastly different picture of Death Grips than we’re used to. It’s vulnerable, scared rather than scary. Until, as we should all see coming by now, the song erupts into noise before coming to a close. Perhaps this is the most we can expect from Death Grips. Some good ideas, a few brief flashes of brilliance, before the whole affair crashes and burns into juvenile rage.
*Okay, The Money Store has two, which is why it’s Death Grips’ best album by far. That second track is “Get Got”
**The exception being “Hacker” which is just the only Death Grips song that sounds like they had any fun making, and is subsequently the only song that could be defined as “fun” to listen to.