Review Summary: Injury Reserve establish themselves as indie rap juggernauts on a near-perfect debut.
Injury Reserve have been at the periphery of alt-rap greatness for the past four years. Their second major project, Live from the Dentist Office, announced the group’s arrival as underground heavyweights, with MC’s Stepa J. Groggs and Ritchie With a T bouncing aggressive, introspective verses off of each other over producer Parker Corey’s blend of left-field sampling and cold, trap-flavored 808’s. The group raised their profile over the next several years, with features from Cakes da Killa and Vic Mensa on the 2016 mixtape Floss and a cosign from YouTube music reviewer Anthony Fantano on the 2017 EP Drive It Like It’s Stolen. The year 2018 saw the group embark on their first headlining tour with rising star (and arguably higher profile) JPEGMAFIA; not bad for a trio of weirdos from Tempe, Arizona without an album to their name. The caveat to their rising profile was the great deal of pressure to release an excellent debut; similar to reigning indie hop champions Brockhampton on their first RCA album, Injury Reserve had the opportunity to make a name for themselves to new and old fans alike with a debut on label Loma Vista. The rapid turnover among successful Internet rap acts certainly added pressure to their hotly anticipated debut.
Injury Reserve’s self-titled debut delivers on all the promises the trio made over the past four years. Stepa and Ritchie are ***-talking and ***-owning as ever, and Corey delivers some of his wildest samples yet (check that A Silver Mt. Zion loop on “What a Year It’s Been”). “Jawbreaker” is peak Injury Reserve, featuring fashion sense flexing from the duo with an expectedly fiery Rico Nasty verse in between. Existentialism and materialism that comes with success are warring themes in the project’s lyricisim: “GTFU” is an aggro-rap meditation on maintaining personal identity in the face of growing success, and “What a Year It’s Been” reflects on paranoia and frustrations in both professional and personal relationships (“Grandpa call it chasin’ a dream and I can’t take that”). There’s still plenty of time for fun on the record too. The playful beat on “Gravy ‘n Biscuits” underpins a goofy hook and lyrical nods to Outkast and De La Soul’s from Stepa and Ritchie respectively. The Atlanta duo’s eclecticism and De La’s early jazz rap aspirations are a clear influence for Injury Reserve. Like Andre 3000 and Big Boi found success in swapping stylistically distinct verses that emphasized their individual strengths, Stepa and Ritchie’s verses seamlessly transition into one another, complementing the subtle brilliance of each other’s flows.
The album’s feature list is another strong suit. Aminé returns the favor of Injury Reserve’s feature on last year’s “Campfire” with a track-making verse on the SOPHIE-esque “Jailbreak the Tesla,” which is as hard-hitting as it is goofy (“Elon on them shrooms/And Grimes gon’ be the GPS”). Freddie Gibbs and DRAM show up and bring their signature styles to “Wax On” and “New Hawaii” respectively. On these features, Corey’s talent as a producer truly shines. His ability to tailor beats to balance Ritchie and Stepa’s flows with the guest’s makes each voice pop; compare Ritchie and Stepa’s laid back verse on “Wax On” with Freddie’s rapid fire rhymes over the industrial beat. Then, listen to DRAM’s smooth-as-butter opening verse over the cloud rap cut “New Hawaii.” You’ll hear a trio of musicians who can effortlessly tackle any sound they try for. Adding to verses from JPEGMAFIA, Rico Nasty and Cakes da Killa, Injury Reserve showcase on their debut a who’s who from every corner of the indie rap game. What makes Injury Reserve an exceptional debut is the group’s ability to maintain their identity while wearing so many different hats. Shuffling could place the easy-going “New Hawaii” after the hyped-all-the-way-up “GTFU”; the trio have crafted an album that successfully weaves together all of their influences and impulses into a cohesive unit.
The album’s strongest moment comes with “Best Spot in the House,” a despondent, reflective track that finds Ritchie and Stepa paying tribute to pre-fame friends. The conceit is what makes the song stand out. Both rap their verses from their perspectives as guilty parties; Ritchie expresses shame over not attending the funeral of someone’s rap he previously rapped about, while Stepa speaks to the empty promises of keeping in better contact with a friend who experienced a heart attack at a young age. Corey sings the hook in a rare vocal appearance: “People watchin’ now, better not let them down.” With a near-perfect debut under their belts, all eyes are on Injury Reserve, as they approach the attention with existential dread. Let’s pray it keeps them as hungry and focused as they are here.