10 years ago today, Death Grips released their groundbreaking debut mixtape, Exmilitary, and in the time since then, they’ve continued to push themselves, and the music industry at large, forward, whether that be musically with their fine balance of pop structures and harsh textures, from a marketing standpoint with their anarchic surprise releases, or culturally with the way the band embraced (and didn’t embrace) the internet for their gain. However you want to look at it, Stefan Burnett, Zach Hill and Andy Morin have made a major mark on the music world, as when artists these days makes an experimental, usually loud, turn, comment sections and replies usually light up with comparisons to Death Grips.
But now that we’re a decade removed from their opening statement, and almost three years from their last proper release, we think it’s time to take a look at their discography as a whole and see how every release stacks up against one another. But first, some ground rules. We will only be counting full-length releases, so no one-off singles like “@deathgripz,” “More Than The Fairy” or, unfortunately, the “Live From Death Valley” single they put out after Exmilitary via Deathbomb. We’re sticking to EP-length (or longer) projects officially put out by the band. So with that said, let’s dive in.
Year of the Snitch doesn’t just have the distinction of being the worst Death Grips album; it also has the distinction of being the only complete dud in their discography. While songs like “Death Grips Is Online” and “Hahaha” (especially the latter) show some potential of what this record could have been, it’s bogged down by muddy engineering (seriously, why does this album sound like this?), terrible sound design and some of the worst songwriting the trio has ever put together. Tracks like “Streaky” and “Linda’s in Custody” are just straight up annoying with their tacky production and corny lyrics, while others like “Dilemma” are awkward and, honestly, amateurish. For a band that broke through with such a clearly defined sound and image, Year of the Snitch feels like listening to a band who has lost the plot entirely.
Just a year before, it felt like the band had rejuvenated their creative energy and introduced some fresh ideas by dipping more into their electronic influences. And while Year of the Snitch attempts to return to the pure, early internet anarchy of Exmilitary, the times have simply changed too much, as the LP sounds more like works in progress that leaked on Napster in 2000 (sound quality and everything) than an actual studio album. And with this being their last proper album for now, it leaves the Death Grips story off on a very sour note.
In early 2015, the Death Grips fan base was in a fervor that was unlike anything I’ve ever seen from an artist fanbase. Seriously, if you think the BTS Army or Swifties are bad, you should have been on r/deathgrips from 2014-2015. The band had announced that they were broken up following the release of part one of their forthcoming double album, The Powers That B, but they also were still working on part two of said album and had even released a single for it (they had also promised the album would come out before the end of the year). So when 2015 came and there was still no Jenny Death, Death Grips fans got a little … crazy. Instead of the band calming fans down by saying, “Hey, we just had to work out some stuff with the physical release and whatnot,” they instead surprise-dropped Fashion Week, an entirely instrumental album where all the tracks were named “Runway” with a letter at the end—letters which then spelled out “JENNY DEATH WHEN,” a running meme/demand among the fanbase.
So with all that backstory out of the way: This project is fine. It’s a fun collection of loosies and whatnot the band had been creating that in no way comes together as a cohesive whole, but the stakes aren’t high enough for it to be that disappointing. Tracks like “Runway H” and “Runway Y” feature some really fun and inventive sections, and others like “Runway E (2)” actually sound like they could have fit right in on Government Plates. But overall, Fashion Week is an extremely low-stakes album that feels like it was meant to simultaneously troll their fans and quench their thirst for Jenny Death.
Though technically their most recent release, Gmail and the Restraining Orders was not exactly new music. While the version we hear today was played on NTS Radio in 2019 during Warp’s 30th anniversary WXAXRXP broadcast, Death Grips fans probably heard this first as a nauseating soundscape played before the band went onstage during their 2015 tour. It’s the most purely experimental thing the band has put out, and possibly the most experimental thing Hill has worked on since his Hella days. Gmail is a fucked up Frankenstein’s monster of the ideas the band played with on both sides of The Powers That B, mixing together Hill’s live, frenetic drumming with the vocal sample chopping techniques heard on n-ggas on the moon, and while it doesn’t always come together, it serves as an interesting time capsule of one of their most creatively fruitful periods, and displays an attitude that the band should’ve maintained on their releases following Jenny Death.
While Fashion Week was clearly overstuffed to fit in the meme, Interview 2016 feels much more purposeful. The album was originally intended to go along with their 2016 visual piece of the same name, in which actor Matthew Hoffman watches the band perform and interviews them while being filmed by cameras from the 1980s. Of course, you never actually hear any sound from the performance or the interview, in typical Death Grips fashion—just these instrumentals. But hey, they’re pretty good instrumentals that serve as a nice extension of the musical ideas heard throughout Government Plates and perfectly tee up their next record, Bottomless Pit.
Coming on the heels of Jenny Death and a seemingly renewed creative energy following Death Grips’ initial break-up, Bottomless Pit’s hype was pretty unreal. But even almost five years removed from the album, it’s hard to say whether all that hype was justified. A lot of songs, like “Spikes”, “Bubbles Buried In This Jungle” and “Bottomless Pit,” feature some of their most exhilarating and frenetic production since The Money Store, which brings out some great performances from Burnett. But at the end of the day, Bottomless Pit is redundant. The core ideas on this record had simply already been heard before and done better on all of their previous releases, as Bottomless Pit is their sole, “core” album that lacks an identity of its own. It just feels like the band wanted to put together another album like The Money Store that combined sticky hook songwriting with an anarchic approach to sound design, but played more into their strengths as a live band with improved production values. And while for most bands, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, it just felt like a small betrayal of Death Grips’ original, core ideas of forward momentum, something Hill and Burnett stressed in early interviews with the band.
At the end of the day, Bottomless Pit is an extremely fun album—just not as thought-provoking as their earlier works. But since they were winding down an unprecedented creative streak, I can’t blame the band too much for the approach they took on this release.
By the time Jenny Death rolled out in March 2015, the band and its fans had put themselves on a massive rollercoaster full of sickening twists and exhilarating turns that spanned the band’s original break-up, Fashion Week, lo-fi rehearsal videos, fake Reddit accounts, German music websites containing snippets, and music videos rife for overanalyzing. All of this culminated in the band using their recently unearthed Twitter account to announce the album’s release date, along with a tour, to a random girl on Twitter commenting on another girl’s MC Ride skirt. But how does the album hold up over six years later? Mostly pretty well, but with some serious flaws in its second half. From “I Break Mirrors With My Face In The United States” to “The Powers That B,” Jenny Death is a fireball of energy that fully embraces the punk rock aspects of Death Grips’ influences, bringing in guitar work from Tera Melos’ Nick Reinhart and producing their most primal music since Exmilitary.
However, once you get to the over-10-minute section of “Beyond Alive” & “Centuries of Damn,” the album loses its steam, with some of the most flat songwriting the group had ever put out to that point. With a muddy mix and ideas not meant to stretch past the four-minute mark, let alone six, “Beyond Alive” was possibly the worst song Death Grips had released at the time, as while Burnett tries his hardest to justify the song’s length, it just feels like an off-kilter riff on bar bands emulating ’70s/’80s arena rock/metal. And while “Centuries of Damn” is a necessary comedown after the balls-to-the-wall energy of the first half of this record, “Beyond Alive” loses me by minute two or three, with “Centuries of Damn” not quite perking my ears up like it’s supposed to.
But even this mediocre stretch can’t hurt “On GP,” the most emotionally direct song Death Grips ever put out and something that sent shockwaves through the fanbase. Backed by a traditional psychedelic-rock track with ominous organ work, Burnett sets aside the absurd imagery of his past work for an extremely frank song about his mental health and suicide. While these themes were nothing new for seasoned Death Grips listeners, hearing Burnett be that straightforward about his struggles felt like a major sea change. Lyrical sections like “Last night, three thirty in the morning, Death on my front porch / Can feel him itching to take me with him, hail Death, fuck you waiting for? / Like a question no one mention, he turns around, hands me his weapon / He slurs, ‘Use at your discretion, it’s been a pleasure, Stefan,’” or the outro as he repeats the mantra of “All the nights I don’t do for you” are still as impactful now as they were six years ago.
If this ended up being the final Death Grips song, I would have been perfectly content. For better or worse, it wasn’t. Nevertheless, Jenny Death is an extremely good record that would hint at flaws that would pop up on subsequent albums, but it’s hard to focus on them when so much of this album is so brilliant and heavy.
Just a month before the release of their groundbreaking debut mixtape, Death Grips would offer up a small peek into their forthcoming project along with three songs that didn’t end up making it onto Exmilitary. “Death Grips (Next Grips)” would have been the perfect thesis statement for the band, had “Beware” not existed. “Face Melter (How to do impossible things)” uses a loud home printer as its base sample and turns it into something you’d hear in a nightclub in the Blade universe. And the fact that “Full Moon (Death Classic)” is the first song the group ever made is just unfair. For that song, of all songs, to be their first ever is like a cheat code that allows you to beat the game before it even officially starts. Everything that makes Death Grips such a great band is all right there in that song, and the fact that they would only get better from here is something to behold.
Of Death Grips’ truly great records, Government Plates is easily their most flawed for one simple reason: a lack of MC Ride. Up until this point, his voice was the guiding light for all of Death Grips’ projects, but in the second half of this record, his voice is seldom heard, and when we do hear him, he’s usually chopped up to hell and used more as an instrument than anything else, with the occasional sentence or phrase coming through clearly.
But this is surprisingly only a minor issue with the record, as Side A of this thing features some of the most bold ideas and powerful songs they’ve put out there, like intro “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” as it goes back and forth between brutal sirens and overwhelming bass without losing a step, taking the cold textures of No Love Deep Web and turning up the heat. The run from this track to “Birds” is among their strongest ever, with the Robert Pattinson-featuring culmination continuing to serve as an outlier in the band’s ever-evolving discography. And while Side B of this record is noticeably lesser than Side A, the record ends on “Whatever I Want (Fuck Who’s Watching),” a god-tier outro track that forgives any sins this album may have committed.
It makes all the chopped vocal fuckery and experimental synth work on that second half make more sense, as it places clues and keys to what makes the last track work. If it wasn’t for their next record after this, Government Plates’ closer probably be the most ambitious song they’ve put out.
While the self-titled EP was technically their first, Exmilitary is the true opening statement of Death Grips, and what a fucking statement it is. Kicking in with an atmospheric Jane’s Addiction sample and a digitally compressed-to-hell clip of a Charles Manson interview, Death Grips didn’t just kick in the front door, they ripped off the entire front of the house to make their entrance. Burnett immediately establishes himself as one of the most captivating vocalists of the millennium, as just in his voice you can hear the absolute pain he’s been through and the power he holds because of it. When he says, “I am the beast I worship,” you have no reason not to believe him, as Burnett sounds more like a demon than a man on much of this album.
But beyond Burnett’s overwhelming presence, the songcraft on display is deceptively accessible—despite the blown-out sound, the songs on Exmilitary are all so fucking catchy. While The Money Store is still largely seen as their “pop” album (and rightfully so), all the elements that made that album the smash it was are all right here. Early on in the band’s history, Hill described the band’s approach being “future primitivism,” a phrase that really is the best way to describe their first two records, especially this one. Once you wade through the harsh textures Exmilitary envelops itself in, you’ll find an album that harkens back to the golden age of hip-hop in its simplicity and blatant disregard for sample clearance, but also sounds like something completely new.
After Bottomless Pit, my faith in Death Grips was in question. While it’s far from a bad record, it was the sound of a band resting on its laurels, far from the forward momentum that served as their motive early on in their career. But just as I thought I was out, they pulled me back in with this surprise EP/extended single. Using the musical ideas and language of gabber as a base, the trio put together one of their most varied, yet cohesive projects, embracing their status as modern electronic innovators. Some of the imagery that Burnett displays on Steroids is his most potent, as images of bald-headed girls, doppelgängers and summer camps flash before your eyes while you feel the most intense body high you’ve ever felt. Steroids is the sound of your heart pushing itself right out of your chest, and just as you think it’s about to be ripped out entirely, you awake in a puddle of your own sweat with an empty wallet.
The video contains flashing lights that may trigger photosensitive conditions.
Look, if you’ve made it this far, you know the backstory of this album. Band announces two albums. Band realizes that, in order to finish the second of those albums, they have to drop out of everything else. Band finishes record, but band’s label says they can’t put it out when the band promised it would be out. Band creates ARG and then leaks the album themselves. Band member makes the album cover his dick. Band loses record deal and goes about their career. It’s a classic story.
But for real, even if No Love Deep Web was just a good album, the release of it alone would have made it deeply influential for the rest of the decade, earning it a spot in the surprise release pantheon. Thankfully, No Love Deep Web is a bona fide great record that was worth every bit of trouble to release.
When describing the physical and mental conditions the band was in when recording the album, you absolutely feel it. No Love Deep Web is a very cold and brutal record, despite it being noticeably more spacious than their previous two releases. Relying more on purely electronic elements than samples, the mixes allow every element here to breathe, though any connection to our world is stripped out and taken away. If Exmilitary and The Money Store were you sowing, saying, “Haha fuck yeah!!! Yes!!,” this record is you reaping and saying, “Well this fucking sucks. What the fuck.”
Hearing Ride rapping in a more calm, articulated voice throughout this record is downright terrifying. While you’d be able to hear this same voice on “Culture Shock” and parts of “Get Got,” the context here is so much different. It’s crazy to think this album was recorded before he and Hill moved to the Chateau Marmont temporarily while trying to get their label to put it out, as the “persona” Ride takes up on this record is of someone who has seen the worst of humanity and wants nothing to do with it. Outrageous psychosexuality, suicidal ideation, child soldiers, depraved drug use and bloody brutality all feature throughout, all heard behind production that sounds like a spaceship malfunctioning. No Love Deep Web is the record you hear in your head as you’re forcefully ripped out into space, floating into the endless abyss.
When Exmilitary came out, no one knew what to make of Death Grips. Even if they liked the album, which many did, it was hard to figure out what mark this band was going to make on the musical landscape of the 2010s. The Money Store quickly answered these questions by completely demolishing whatever was left of the 2000s and building something entirely new out of the wreckage. While mixing underground sounds with modern pop sensibilities was nothing new, Death Grips’ approach to that idea was simply unheard of before they hit the scene. The sticky hooks of MC Ride, mixed with his fierce and otherworldly performances, and wrapped up in the brash textures of fellow songwriter Hill and engineer Andy Morin, was just something you weren’t getting anywhere else.
And even despite the changes we’ve seen to the record industry in the rise of the internet and streaming services, it is insane that this is an album released by Epic Records, one of the most iconic major labels of all time. Even in the wave of oddball major-label signings of alternative bands/artists throughout the late-‘80s to the mid-’90s, Death Grips getting signed to a major after their first project still feels unprecedented. And it wasn’t even a cool, young, hip A&R executive who signed them, but Epic’s CEO, the now-disgraced L.A. Reid, who basically signed the band on the spot after he met with them in the label’s office, comparing them to the late Whitney Houston (if Hill is to be believed), who had only recently passed away when Reid met the group.
But focusing just on the music here, The Money Store is a great accomplishment in music history, fusing together the history of hip-hop, punk, electronic and experimental music into a singular wire that’s connected to a power source so advanced, we can’t even begin to comprehend it. While the band’s approach makes this beatdown of the senses seem random, it’s all precisely calculated, the result of damn near perfect pacing that makes 40 minutes feel like 20.
The video contains images flashing in rapid succession that may trigger photosensitive conditions.
When n-ggas on the moon was surprise-released, once again, by the band in 2014, you could feel a music media apparatus that once lifted them up breathe a heavy sigh, and realize they didn’t have to take this shit anymore. Most critics heard the record, moved along and only covered Death Grips when they absolutely had to (which ended up being a lot in the interim between this album and Jenny Death).
Even on their least humane records before this, there was still a tether to reality Burnett could hang onto, pulling himself in when he felt like he was ready to return. But just as he’s forced to confront his humanity again, the rope gets yanked from his grasp and he’s forced to confront his own mortality in the darkness of space. There are human voices heard throughout this record (Björk provided vocals that were used as a “found object” by Hill on a v-drum kit), but they feel more hallucinatory than anything else.
“Up My Sleeves” is pound-for-pound the best Death Grips intro song they’ve ever made, as Ride raps with a clarity seen nowhere else. While much of their music before this was purposefully trying to subvert the macho expectations hip-hop and punk usually present, this song, and really this entire album, tries to scrape away any expectations the listener might have, as unimaginable imagery of deep web fantasies are replaced with images of cemeteries and a reference to the death of Burnett’s mother.
While parts of their discography hinted at Burnett’s psychosexual fears with outrageous imagery, n-ggas on the moon grounds these fears, confronting them head-on and in-depth to a degree that feels like we’re peeking in on something we absolutely shouldn’t be. In general, a lot of this album seems like a deconstruction of the Death Grips mythology, reminding us that we are listening to humans making this music, crying out for help and acknowledgement. All of this is surrounded by Hill’s most musically innovative ideas he’s put on a record, with crystal-clear engineering that remains Morin’s finest work to date, which makes the Death Grips (and The ILYs, Morin’s band/side project with Hill) albums after this all the more maddening with just how muddy their mixes get.
There’s a tough balance of vulnerability and mysticism the band pulls off on this album that makes it easily their most replayable, as any hints you think you can find about what this album could be about are slapped away as quickly as they’re built. And while it’s easy to become wrapped up in the mystery of this album, that’s only a part of it. The character of MC Ride Burnett has established throughout these records is completely deconstructed, or at least seems to be. On outro “Big Dipper,” Burnett delivers the line “Ursa Major, significance minor,” as if to say you can look as deep as you want into him, but you’re not going to find anything. He’s just a guy who never asked for the cult of personality that’s developed around him.
And just as you think we’re seeing a glimpse of the man behind the music, he’s swallowed up in the fire as Hill unloads on on his v-drum kit, burying the evidence and hoping it’ll never be found again. Similar to Hella’s “Earth’s First Evening Jimi Hendrix-less and Pissed,” “Big Dipper” plays like a cryptic funeral march, but this time it feels like a self-chosen fate. If Death Grips were to have ended after this album, the last images we would have seen of Burnett would have been of him dead on a bed in the “Whatever I Want” music video, and as a ghost walking around Broadway cemetery on the album cover.
While Death Grips continued to put out great music after this album, n-ggas on the moon feels like the end of the story. And maybe it should have been.
Matty Monroe is a music writer and podcaster, Nathan Fielder fanboy, and butt rock defender. Along with his day job on the radio/digital team at Planetary Group, he’s a moderator/AMA coordinator over at the r/indieheads subreddit and host of the Indieheads Podcast. Follow them on Twitter @MonrovianPrince.