Review Summary: Wax on, wax off, wax on, wax off, wait
Mid-album interlude 'Rap Song Tutorial' has, I think, two major functions. It operates, on the one hand, as a flex: between the drones of a text-to-speech bot, dictating a number (7) of instructions (pursuant to the song's title), a beat, hook and verse are assembled -- a song in a matter of minutes, and an impressive one at that. It is, on the other hand, a reduction of the trio's sound -- not least of which their self-titled, debut album -- a means of self-effacement, and a chance to poke fun at its self-seriousness. It’s a dichotomisation that lies at the heart of what is the Arizonan trio's most definitive project to date -- their first official “album” (as loaded as that term is within the modern hip-hop context, the reader will know), and their first work under the Loma Vista label. It informs, to some extent or another, the album's sound, themes and content, and is what distinguishes the group from their peers.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on closer, 'Three Man Weave', a jazz-rap marvel on which Ritchie with a T spits: "[T]oo pretentious for some Migos / Then Phonte made a song with Lil B, though", in which he references the BasedGod's 9th Wonder-produced, Phonte-featuring 'Based 4 Ya Face' -- a song that, for him, eradicates the distinction between internet (and pop) rap and “serious (or real) hip-hop”. It's from within this context that much of the album can be interpreted -- and from which much fun is to be had. On mid-album highlight 'Gravy n' Biscuits', for instance, Ritchie and (Stepa J) Groggs -- the duo at the album's core -- craft a hook that is as sing-song as it is sarcastic. Atop boom-bap snare smacks and liquid-smooth piano flourishes -- courtesy of mastermind-producer Parker Corey -- Groggs delivers the bounciest of verses, referencing for the second time on the album OutKast's 'Humble Mumble'. (An apt allusion, I think, given André 3000 and Big Boi's own liberalities with hip-hop's so-called sub-genres.) When Ritchie takes over, however, there is a noticeable shift in the beat: a distorted vocal pattern weaves in an out of his verse, poisoning it, and so reflecting the erratic flare of his often-cut-throat delivery. Despite a growing disjunct between the distinct styles of Groggs and Ritchie -- illustrating a conflict of sorts between the old and the new -- Injury Reserve is as cohesive a hip-hop album as one can hope. This is thanks, in large part, to Parker’s ever-so-versatile production, though also, I think, Groggs’ and, in particular, Ritchie’s growing scepticism with modern hip-hop culture, and a heightened awareness of its pretensions.
It is, on the third of the album's movements, a scepticism that's directed inward. On 'Best Spot in the House', Ritchie questions the motives behind Drive it Like it's Stolen's 'North Pole', as well as the influence he has on his listeners:
“And I hear them say that it was beautiful
But to me, man, that shit was inexcusable
To talk about a death and not go to the funeral”
Let's be clear. Introspection isn't new. Even within the context of modern hip-hop, 'Best Spot in the House' offers far from a unique perspective, postdating Kendrick's 'I', for one, and I'm sure dozens of equivalents. Likewise, Injury Reserve is, without a doubt, an album within the hip-hop tradition. What makes the trio so interesting, then, is something outside of their unique position within the genre's movements -- outside, moreover, of their purported claim to "experimentation". It's an understanding of their craft -- an acceptance of its boundaries -- and a willingness to grow. It is, at once, an open-mindedness, and a readiness to cut through the bullshit -- a sound that undercuts pretention with humour, humour with consequence, and consequence with growth.