Last week, Death Grips released their fourth album, Government Plates, directly to the Internet with no advance warning. It’s latest sudden move from the experimental Sacramento rap group, who spent the summer increasing their infamy by refusing to show up for scheduled shows, canceling others, and claiming it all as an art piece on the nature of performance and audience expectation. It fit the band’s quickly built brand—agents of mayhem, who won’t conform to the established rules of the music business. But while Death Grips’ records and persona scream chaos, their fast rise has been all about careful control and wily media savvy.
The sort of corny label, “Punk-rap”, only really stuck to the band’s first record, Exmilitary. By their 2012 breakout, The Money Store, the forging of Zach Hill’s angry art-rock beats and MC Ride’s emphatically spit rhymes was secondary. “Rap-rock” went stale some 20 years earlier. “Punk” has been fully separated from “rock” at this point, so disorienting synths didn’t disrupt the concept. There’s an air of reckless abandon to the album, plus a saturating paranoia that fits punk’s traditional anti-establishment ideals. It noted the increasingly public nature of life, advocating savage nonsense shoved right in the unblinking surveillance eye. As negative as it gets, the defiance is oddly buoyant. “I’ve Seen Footage” or “Hacker” could power a house-party dancefloor, without attendees getting too twitchy.
Before this year’s no-shows, the band’s most controversial act was to break their contract with Epic Records to leak their third album, NO LOVE DEEP WEB, free on the Internet with an angry cock as an album cover, and publish angry internal emails with the label to prove that the mutiny wasn’t some viral stunt. They deeply mythologized the story in interviews, portraying the recording advance they blew to live at L.A.’s Chateau Marmont as a form of Psych-Op maneuver, touting Art of War advice they gleaned from Magic: The Gathering. The record itself isn’t much more difficult than its predecessor, upon reflection. It’s more bludgeoning, both in tone and depressive sentiment; the house-party scenario becomes less likely. But it still scans as a rap album, and one with a bleak electronic sound that seems less and less unusual as the rest of the hip-hop mainstream sprints towards it. They’re proven right to have prioritized ahead-of-curve timing over professional duty. Their desire to be seen as futurists hinged on it.
The bait-and-switch tour stunt, though, felt different. They were no longer fighting visionless suits, but disrespecting fans, using them as performance art props. The band claimed to be fucking with preconceived notions of what a concert really is, man. It followed ideas they’d tossed out in interviews, the concept of putting out multiple fake versions of themselves to tour the world simultaneously while the band stayed home, becoming a band who “perform” even as they refuse to. The ideas wasn’t as revolutionary as they seemed to think, though, certainly not a more elegant execution than Kraftwerk “performing” through mechanical dummies in the early 80s. If we’re to take it as an art statement, the concept is only dorm-room grade. As marketing? The act kept the band controversial, current, and never not noticed, even in recording seclusion.
Releasing a new album nonchalantly online is very appealing in this specific moment. Though press agents have seldom been known for restraint, this year was a tipping point for pre-album release hype. Those never-ending Daft Punk videos. Arcade Fire’s goofy late-night variety show. Kanye’s building-side projections. Miley’s perpetual burlesque. The instant reality of a free download link where their wasn’t one a second ago? No prolonged teases manufactured for optimum click-ability, blog-ability, share-ability, treating us as if we’re all just mice in a content maze? It’s refreshing. It also happens to generate a lot of tweets. Death Grips figured out how to do the prolonged album lead up without saying that’s what they were doing. Not announcing a release date serves the double purpose of denying writers an easy self-promotion frame to hang on publicity stunts, then gains the band double the news exposure on release, while side-stepping the numbness that comes from weeks of non-stories about album art and tracklists.
Though practically all jagged edges, the songs on the last two Death Grips album seemed like complete thoughts. Government Plates takes the group’s devotion to chaos and disruption as far as they’ve been able to. It’s fractured, ADD, jumping to new sounds immediately when the first ones had barely begun. Rather than bludgeoning you straight on, it wrong-foots you, and then punches you in the ear from the side. The sounds are brighter than expected, actually, a frantic techno burbling much more vivid than NO LOVE’s suffocating murk. It more recalls the density of early 00s electronica records put out by Warp or DFA than it does Yeezus’ minimalism. It takes few pains to provide stable landscapes for Ride to flow over. Like everything on it, his voice is disjointed, his prophet-on-fire belligerence filling a hype man role for unexpected tempo or structural changes. Hill’s nimble live drumming is eaten by spastic programmed beats. Traditional choruses are mostly absent, and even repeated mantras are used sparingly. It’s best described as an avant-dance record, with occasional bursts of rap shouting. It’s also the band’s most succinct statement, an overload you can’t quickly digest, but isn’t too taxing to soon revisit.
Positioning themselves as vandals burning everything down, they actually reveal themselves as masters of marketing and branding and every other grubby thing required to be a big deal music act in 2013. They have to be that shrewd, because their music is far less commercial than all of the big-hype bands previously mentioned. Even the most respected experimental artists of the moment are barely present in the constantly churning soap opera that online music coverage has become. Oneohtrix Point Never, for example, is highly respected but too niche to be the subject of dueling think pieces agonizing over Daniel Lopatin’s proper place as hero, asshole, or fraud. Right now, if enough people notice you, form an opinion of you, there’s no way to entirely opt out of becoming a brand. The only away to avoid it is to be overly humble, uninteresting, unmemorable. That’s a tactic Death Grips aren’t likely to attempt.