Review Summary: Challenging yet rewarding experimental hip hop
This is hip hop, but not as you know it. Even at this starting point, Death Grips’ take on hip hop is pretty intriguing. Whilst this is undoubtedly their most traditionally hip hop release, with its use of sampling and even a rare feature cut on a song – as well as the subject matter in some songs and the braggadocio – there is an undercurrent of something other.
Just a bit of advice for novice listeners, or for those who have dipped their toes in the water – if you are not feeling their music, then don’t force it. Exmilitary takes no prisoners, and as a debut release, is frighteningly confident and assured of its horror. It takes all of the staples of hip hop, even its detractors’ criticism, and turns it up to eleven. You cannot force yourself to like this, because from the outset, Death Grips’ music is polarising by design. The bass is excessively loud; songs are compressed to buggery; some songs are whole samples; the vocal delivery is incomprehensible and the instrumentals are so noisy.
To me, Death Grips on this project provide the perfect backdrop for the maniacal and paranoid rants of a man turned mad by the society he had once relied upon, to which he’s turned his back on to find his own path. At once, this journey is documented futuristically whilst maintaining and obstinately preserving primitivism inherent in even the most “civilised” of peoples. This makes Exmilitary a Year Zero sort of document. It is as if a caveman has just acquired, by accident almost, technology from the year 3000, and begins to slam the instruments with his bare hands.
That, in essence, is Exmilitary and Death Grips’ music in general: that combination and tension between the demands of the future and the darkest actions that humanity committed to getting to that future. This encompasses the use of technology used for military, chemical and political warfare, and technology designed to spread information electronically and influence others. Exmilitary tries to make sense of all of this, but succumbs to the loss of one’s moral code in the process. Not just to gain another subjective moral code, but to have no code whatsoever, a conscious subversion of what is traditionally right or wrong.
This is clear from the opening sample of Charles Manson on the track Beware, where he candidly recalls his days recording music over a droning bass line. As one can expect, the parallels between Manson’s soapbox monologue and the sentiments expressed by Burnett are striking, even if Manson’s incredibly racist helter-skelter theories are at odds with the band’s political stances. Nonetheless, the speech is pretty striking and effective, and one can’t not listen to it. That feeling of control, of “rolling the nickels”, of the “game being [theirs]”, of “deal[ing] the cards”, is perhaps the most common theme in Death Grips’ music, a theme that has cropped up again and again in different and more extreme ways.
The song itself is nothing short of incredible. The slow beat and skittering hi-hats over the dub-like vocals, the occasional trumpet echoing through the speakers, the guitar feedback that seems to somehow anchor everything in. Burnett’s vocals are a mixture of spoken word on one hand, reciting his thought patterns, and a shouty bark on the other, asserting himself and his desires on an unassuming group of people he surely despises. Lyrically, this is the high water mark on Exmilitary, making the rest of the album a hard act to follow on that front, especially the hook;
"I close my eyes and seize it
I kiss my fists and beat it
I light my torch and burn it
I am the beast I worship"
Note how it isn’t “man”, or even “human”, but “beast”. It’s a song all about embracing the hatred inside, embracing the starting point of all human beings, and doing away with all false notions of civility and progression. The song is an extended rant on worship itself, rituals, how “to pray is to accept defeat”, and how everyone else is just a “beggar on a bitch’s leash”. The other striking feel of the song comes in the post-chorus lines, where Burnett feels that he is on “the point of no return/raise war like no tomorrow/coz no Hell, there won’t be one”. It is an incredibly atheistic, anti-religious track, but also embraces worship. Again, a tension is evident on Beware, not just in its lyrics but the instrumentation itself. Despite its title, it is incredibly hypnotic and inviting. It’s the music equivalent of Kaa from The Jungle Book telling the listener to trust in him whilst he tells them how much he despises them.
Beware is a tough act to follow, and whilst the album doesn’t quite reach those heights lyrically, it is still full of memorable and awesome moments. It is a very consistent album, with frenzied drumming from Zach Hill and regular samples from Andy Morin. Morin’s samples seem rooted in hardcore punk, “classic” rock and synthpop, ranging from Link Wrey’s Rumble (Spread Eagle ‘Cross the Block), Black Flag’s Rise Above (Klink), Pink Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive & Astronomy Demine (I Want It I Need It), and Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls (the 5D instrumental interlude). This approach thus makes this release the most Hip Hop-like of all of their albums, but don’t let that fool you.
Take, for instance, the song Guillotine. This song is incredibly sparse and minimal, its lyrics on paper read like any horror core song. However, it’s the execution (hee hee) of it all. It’s the way Burnett keeps going “it goes it goes it goes” and “yuh!” There is a genuine danger in his vocals, whereby he takes delight in “ty[ing] the chord, kick the chair and you’re dead”. Occasionally, this robotic groan enters the mix after the chorus. You feel as if the head has been cut clean from its shoulders every time it sounds. It is their most iconic and most popular song, and I can see why: its vocal delivery excessively confrontational, the bass compressed to such a degree that it brings about loudness war debates, and the rather laid back drums. Most of all, the closing moments of the track have this deafening synth line that just dances around my head like a swarm of hornets.
Spread Eagle ‘Cross the Block boasts the wildest track on the entire album, from the disorientating volume of Burnett’s echoey vocals over the trebly guitar samples, to the tumbling bass that sounds like it’s trying to keep up with the chaos. Burnett’s lyrics are bananas on this one; "I *** the music! I make it cum! I *** the music with my serpent tongue!" The song is, essentially, about his destructive hunts and escapades for sex, drugs, and dominance on the street corner he frequents. He is a willing victim to addiction, despite asserting his prowess and dominance, yet you don’t challenge him. What can you say to a guy who screams “*** IS MINE! IT’S ALL MINE! ALL THE TIME!” at the top of his lungs, though? How can you help a guy who says “what is it/where is it/how does it affect me?”, only for him to say, “*** that”. Perhaps I am oversimplifying the message of the song, but it is one of many in their catalogue of songs which details someone degrading themselves. Beneath the memetic phrases, a lot of this reads as a cry for help.
Takyon is filthy. It is a banger. It is more minimalist than Guillotine, and even better. Burnett’s call of “triple six! Five! Forked! Tongue!” introduces his first verse, coupled with some tight interplay between Hill’s v-drum kit and the whirring bass. The chorus just soars, too, when Burnett screams, “oh *** I’m feeling it!” It does all this in about two minutes forty, with Burnett’s lyrics bragging about how Death Grips will take the listener to places they have never been.
I can’t say I disagree, even on a song like Klink, which stresses an anti-police theme not uncommon in hip hop since the days of the NWA but is presented rather differently. The use of the Rise Above sample suggests the song is coming from a similar place to punk and hardcore, which probably explains why the song resonates with me in particular. Burnett’s opening “OH! WHOO!”, with his double-tracked call and response; "whatcha gonna do when they come for you? A gang of hating pigs! What’s anyone ever done for you? Ain’t nobody done ***!"
It's really overwhelming to the listener. In general, the song seems more radically opposed to the very institute of the police, almost in an anarchistic way, though of course implying that Burnett is being stopped by the cops because he is black.
Culture Shock is another amazing track, a welcome reprieve after the frenzy of the previous cuts. Even the Cut Throat instrumental is pretty frantic. A sample of The Supermen by David Bowie song plays, before his voice is warped and manipulated, in order to create the song’s excellent melody (of sorts, though it is certainly in a musical key). Burnett is speaking solely on this song, in a condescending tone, inviting the listener to “*** yourself/choke yourself”, saying quite a lot about how much contempt he feels for those sucked into the trap of relying too much on technology. The lyrics continue to be scathing, mocking the lack of conversation because it “moves too slow/you’re the media’s creation...your free will has been taken and you don’t know”. The imagery of “Shiva slashin’ through your flat screen”, the “suicidal brides”, and being a “helpless drone...linked directly to your cell phone” is particularly striking, as is the recurring “you need to vibrate higher”, which leads wonderfully onto the 5D interlude.
Known for It is another banger, and is fairly underrated. The drums are massive on this one, and I love the sample that occurs throughout. In many ways, it foreshadows the sound of their next project. The theme of this song is the narrator gaining notoriety for his past actions and his current choices, but doesn’t give a ***. He justifies “pay[ing] the price to roll with it”, in order to gain something whilst others waste their lives to “eat, *** and die”. He makes the listener, how they keep being undermined by societal forces, how it “makes you feel like a ho, don’t it?” Burnett doesn’t listen, with his “selective memory”, just keeping on mocking others for not being free. In a way, it’s a repetition of themes previously explored on the mixtape, but worded differently.
I Want It I Need It is the epic track of the album, in many ways a story teller about one man’s attempt to have sex and take drugs at a house party. He even contemplates rape and drugging the woman he is with, showing just how far someone is willing to go to fill their “most primal desires”, and in order to feel a “volcano pussy” that “melt[s] your peter like ice”. In a way, you can relate to the guy’s wish to acquire this after he’s “been working way too much”. Yet, his approach over Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett’s scratchy guitar is not morally correct. This is another song, like Spread Eagle, where the sampling may be perceived as lazy, particularly as Zach Hill literally drums over the guitar of Interstellar Overdrive, but the hook is pretty catchy. Most of all, the song is pretty funny, particularly this line: "responsibility’s cool but there’s more things in life/like getting your dick rode all ***ing night". I can’t say I disagree. The song is a little too long at 6 minutes, but overall, it’s one of my favourites.
The rest of the songs here are not as good as the ones I have gone into detail about. For starters, the track Lord of the Game ft. Mexican Girl is a little bit filler-y. I like the sample of “I am the God of Hellfire”, but the song isn’t that interesting, and the guest feature on the vocals aren’t really that noticeable or relevant to the song, either. Also, Burnett’s lyrics are strictly hip hop, which isn’t a bad thing, but compared to other tracks, it is relatively boring. Another song that is still growing on me is Thru the Walls, due to just how frantic it is, with Zach Hill’s live drums and the air-horn that crops up sometimes. Burnett’s vocals are particularly crazy on this one, but perhaps too much for me.
The closing track, Blood Creepin’, is simply too much for the end of the album, and probably would have benefitted either coming a little earlier, or not being there at all. Even for me, it’s a bit too over the top. Burnett’s imitations of sirens, the “OH WHOA WHOA WHOA”, is a little obnoxious, and I don’t think the song instrumentally is that interesting. It’s a shame, because it isn’t so bad a track, but after the two very strong songs before it, is sort of anti-climactic.
I think that it is eventual that this album, after a few revised listens to it and to the rest of their discography, would probably not rank as highly in my mind as the rest of their albums. However, Exmilitary is such a bat*** crazy listening experience that I think it’s still better than a lot of modern music I have listened to, particularly hip hop, which is a genre that I haven’t really engaged in that much.
Exmilitary succeeds in the fact that inspires the same feelings and sense of euphoric anger that punk and heavy rock music does, especially because I love those genres. It takes that energy and uses it in a hip hop context. Even then, I haven’t heard anything like this. You know what else? I don’t even want to. This will leave you as a scum desperate for relief.