Following months of activity on mysterious Twitter accounts, a surprise instrumental soundtrack, a low-quality rehearsal video, and a never-ending release date rumour mill, both N***as on the Moon and Jenny Death have at last been united as The Powers That B. Known to innovate and reshape themselves with each release, it should come as no surprise that the Sacramento trio have done so twice over this time around, with each disc taking a strikingly different approach to their brand of challenging hip-hop. Whether the aforementioned antics were part of the conceptual art or not, the exploration of sounds here both polarizing and palatable was worth the mystery.
Released digitally in 2014 before their apparent split, N***as on the Moon still remains the group's most confounding collection of tracks, largely abandoning their previously employed song structures and production calling cards in favour of seamless transitions, overtly percussive instrumentals and finely spliced Björk vocal samples. At points, the vocal stabs work nicely both rhythmically and melodically, particularly on "Black Quarterback" and the jerky, humorous "Have A Sad Cum BB," while the more spastic chops of the samples suit the unnerving nature of "Fuck Me Out" and "Voila." (Use of the Icelandic star's voice as a found object becomes more impressive upon learning it was manipulated by drummer Zach Hill with an electronic kit.)
Lyrically matching this mania is MC Ride, best detailing a descent into madness on frightening opener "Up My Sleeves," focusing on the death of his mother and changing self-perception: "Used to know who I was / Fuck if I knew who that was." While his signature roar quiets down to nearly deadpan speech in the latter half of the record, it doesn't hinder the dominant nature of "Fuck Me Out" ("Just don't touch me / Just fuck fuck me") and the snide loathing of closer "Big Dipper" ("It's my pyre / Agoraphobe if I want to"). It's a side to the vocalist largely unseen on previous releases, and one that is catered to in a more explosive manner on the second disc.
In contrast to its preceding sister record, Jenny Death is representative of outward action and thought more than internalization, apparent from the racing, cyber-thrash of opener "I Break Mirrors with My Face in the United States." The rallying cry of "I don't care about real life" signals the start of unrelenting lyrical and musical aggression carried forth in the volatile time signatures of standout "Turned Off" and the electro-hardcore duality of "Why A Bitch Gotta Lie," and ultimately reaching an exhausting peak with the title track's earth-shattering drop. While the aggressive electronics of production wizard Andy Morin are still very much intact, the band's use of live instrumentation is a welcome addition alongside them.
Guitar from Tera Melos' Nick Reinhart and increased use of acoustic percussion from Hill only strengthen the group's punk dimension, with hardcore-inspired riffing and straightforward drum kit thrashing accomplishing much more than samples ever could. Incredibly prominent in the record's closing moments, an unusual trio of guitar-driven songs doesn't seem out of place despite the subject matter at hand. The egocentric stomp of "Beyond Alive" and the anthemic "Centuries of Damn" reach a rock music apex with "On GP," structured around vivid accounts of Ride's suicidal tendencies ("My most recent purchase, old black rope / Gonna learn how to tie it, hang it in my chamber") in moments of solemn psych-rock reflection before being pulled from the darkness by a triumphant lead guitar melody.
Though radically different in execution, The Powers That B is a compelling look at the band's ability to work with sounds both minimal and monumental, while containing some of their most riveting lyrical and musical work in recent memory. One wouldn't be wrong to question the decision to release both discs as a double album, given that neither demonstrates a great sonic reliance on the other.
Yet this is another question that listeners likely won't get an answer for, in addition to ones about the legitimacy of their breakup, whether or not they will show up on their upcoming North American tour dates, and if the ominous album closer "Death Grips 2.0" really does point to future work from the band.
Such is the reality of Death Grips' masochistic relationship with their art — the guesswork behind it can be tiring, but the result is incredibly satisfying when delivered.