Track Re-vyooz: Death Grips – “Hot Head”

By Tom Loughney ’16

BLOW BLOW BLOW BLOW BLOW BLOW BLOW BLOW BLOW BLOW BLOW BLOW BLOW BLOW BLOW

Did you like that? Would you consider that a good way to open something? Does it make you think I’m intimidating? Powerful? Or did it just make you sort of confused and annoyed? If you answered “…no” to all but the last question, then you’ll probably be turned off by “Hot Head” – the new track from Death Grips that features a… similar opening.  Despite the – reasonable – skepticism you may feel, I would encourage you to stick it out. “Hot Head” is more than the loud, lazy chaos of its laughable intro.[1]

The dismal first 60 seconds of this song crest out into such well-produced, clear, and defined sound that I felt honest-to-god relief on my first listen. To be clear: this wasn’t the structural relief they were going for – a relief created by the abrupt shift from frantic, overwhelming noise to slowed, toned down structure. This was the relief you feel when your favorite sports team makes a good play during an otherwise dismal game. Keeping with the metaphor, however, Death Grips made a really good play.

This breath of fresh air I’ve been hyping up so much is the hook, and it’s almost perfect. From a production standpoint, “Hot Head’s” hook has some really well-crafted synthetic sounds. Death Grips loves to get caught up in the minutia of their production, which either results in the Highest Of Highs – The Money Store, Exmilitary – and the Lowest Of Lows – tracks off of No Love, Deep Web, and Government Plates. Fortunately, this ends up being one of the former. Dizzyingly arpeggioed synths perform a precise sonic dance beneath frontman MC Ride’s lyrics, moving with assertion and purpose without losing the intricacy of much of Death Grips’ music.

I’m also a huge fan of the sonic texture during this piece of the song. After the chunky, weighted guitars of Jenny Death, it’s nice to hear the group moving back in an electronic direction. The synths swagger around a full-toned middle range, and sound like a mere stone’s throw from chiptune. This comparison rises from the structural similarities between “Hot Head’s” hook and a lot of classic game music – the mid-range track of games often featured a backing arpeggio or harmonic progression moving at fast-tempo[2] – but also because the sound itself is very similar. Death Grips throw a spooky tone to it – because they’re Death Grips and they gotta be scary – but the rich sound of late-era chiptune still comes forward. If you find chiptune too piercing or shrill, I wouldn’t worry – Death Grips has rounded out the sound, softening the fierce pitches that turn some off to that style of music. Full disclosure: I really like chiptune music, so this might be why I think the hook makes “Hot Head’s” whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Some final notes about the hook that merit mention:

  1. Ride’s voice has been treated to have that robotic sound you may recognize from the break of “The Powers that B” or “Have a Sad Cum.” Normally, this bothers me – I think it takes a lot of the personality out of Ride’s vocals, and also sounds really goofy – but they’ve toned it down this time around. The sound still differs wildly from pure, uncut Ride, but there’s enough of him in this iteration of the Robot Voice to retain an enjoyable amount of character in his treated delivery. Also, it works really well with the backing production, texturally speaking.
  2. When it comes to the quality of performance in Death Grips’ studio releases, Zach Hill is easily the most consistent member of the group – something that continues to hold true throughout “Hot Head,” but most notably on the hook. His drums sound like automatic gunfire, if automatic gunfire was catchy and fun to listen to.

I’m stepping away from the hook, but I’m not ready to be negative quite yet. While the track experiences a severe post-hook quality dip, Hill’s drumming on “Hot Head” is – far and away – the most enjoyable part of one of Death Grips lowest songwriting moments. While everything else collapses around him – be they MC Ride’s lyrics, or Flatlander’s production – Hill annihilates the drums with a ferocity that – unfortunately – is somewhat lost to the disorganized parts of the song. One of my biggest frustrations with Death Grips is the way that quality sometimes gets lost in the moments where they throw restraint out the window, and “Hot Head” is one of the most egregious examples of this issue to date.

There’s just no way around it – I think the verses are unbearable. They’re split into a few pieces. The first part starts with some rising synths – a lá “Inanimate Sensation” – that are fine for the brief seconds they appear, but then they shatter into some truly mishandled production. Theoretically, the concept of this next part is fine – take some vocals, put them through the sonic ringer, and twist them into a wild, aggressive noise backing for the proper vocals – but it’s more awkward than anything else.

Things get better when the treated vocal backing cuts out. It goes back to sliding synths, but – get this – this time, they rise and fall. Wooooooooaaah. While it’s not the most interesting thing Death Grips has ever done with sound, it’s still an improvement, and – if nothing else – makes this the most tolerable piece of the worst production on this single.

Last – but maybe least? – we come to MC Ride’s lyrics. Mirroring my opinions on the verse v. the hook, I find Ride’s verses sloppy and unimaginative, yet still enjoy – comparatively – what he’s doing on the hook. I think I made it pretty clear within the early moments of this review that I don’t enjoy the annoying, repetitive “BLOW BLOW BLOW BLOW BLOW” garbage he’s spitting. The few words he sneaks in between this horrendous repetition aren’t that interesting either. A single line dedicated to how much of a Smart Person You Are – “Oh no, that pedagogue grab the microphone, ease back up” – falls really flat when your supposedly superior intellect produces verses that consist of 73%[3] the same word. Granted, the hooks are better, but they’re still very safe, Death Grips hype. Ride’s talking about how his use of the “bad” side of life makes him a better rapper. How people don’t understand how to be as good as him because they haven’t embraced the demons within. It’s still better than “BLOW BLOW BLOW” ad nauseum, but barely creative – and certainly not new. Hate to tell you, Ride, but there are like, a hundred philosophers who beat you to the punch.

There’s a lot of mediocre stuff on this track. I still laugh when I hear Ride screaming “BLOW” over and over again. That being said, there’s still enough “good” buried in this bizarre little track to merit a listen. Check it out. Pay particular attention to the hook’s production, and hope that this is the sort of thing we’ll be hearing on Death Grips’ next album.

 

[1] I guess what I’m saying is: don’t worry – this track doesn’t… blow.

[2] For those who don’t know what I’m referencing here, a lot of old game music – essentially anything preceding 3D graphics – was arranged in a specific way. There were four tracks to work with: a track that operated at higher ranges, often used for the lead; a mid-range track – used when the main melody dipped down a little low, and also for harmonies and backing arpeggios; a low range track – cos it’s all about that bass; and a “static” track that would produce toneless static noises used to approximate percussion.

[3] I did the math. For the first verse, anyhow.

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