Album Analysis | Death Grips – No Love Deep Web
How the world’s premier experimental hip-hop group blew itself up in more ways than one.
In a satirical article for Flavorwire, Tom Hawking stereotyped people whose favourite album of 2013 was No Love Deep Web as "scary-eyed dudes who conduct intense conversations about the nature of state power with the same casual ease as college bros talk about football". Considering the caustic sound and coarse lyrics of Sacramento-based experimental hip hop trio Death Grips’ second album, and all of the media controversy surrounding its release and cover artwork, this is not an entirely unfair criticism.
Death Grips (MC Ride – vocals and lyrics, Zach Hill – drums, production, keys and programming, and Andy Morin – production, bass, audio engineering, keys and programming) formed in 2010 and swiftly released their unpolished yet sonically distinctive self-titled EP. Soon followed the release of their debut mixtape, Exmilitary, which earned the group enough acclaim to kick off 2012 with the signing of a major-label deal with Epic Records and the announcement of their intent to release two full-length albums that same year.
The Money Store was leaked on YouTube and Soundcloud on 14th April 2012, released on vinyl on Record Store Day and officially released on 24th April. It was praised as an energetic, glitchy, more fragmented yet fuller version of the sonic template on Exmilitary. Additional praise was given for its layered, thick synthesizers (“Lost Boys”, “Blackjack”), powerful, uncompromising yet snappy tracks with infectious hooks (“The Fever (Aye Aye)”, “I’ve Seen Footage”) and compelling lyrical themes about fear, mental illness, debauchery, addiction and brutality, to name a few. The Money Store's critical acclaim helped make No Love Deep Web one of the most anticipated albums of 2012.
Death Grips would tease the release of No Love Deep Web by sending fans on an online treasure hunt, searching through images and ZIP files for clues about album details. One incident included fans travelling to New York City to wait at a ringing payphone that played a voice message when answered. Once this died down, the group announced that Epic Records had pushed back the album’s release date and that fans would hear the album on the same date that the label would: 1st October 2012.
The following morning, the band posted a link to a website where the album could be downloaded on Twitter. They also posted the album on Soundcloud and other file-sharing services including BitTorrent, who later that day would reveal that Death Grips had topped their "List of Most Legally Downloaded Music" with 34,151,432 downloads.
As if the self-leak, public business dispute, and unprecedented media attention weren’t enough, Death Grips’ infamy was amplified by No Love Deep Web’s album cover – a photograph of Zach Hill’s erect penis with the name of the album written across it. In a rare interview with Spin Magazine, Ride commented:
"If you look at that and all you see is a dick, I don't really have anything to say, pretty much. I looked at it and said, 'This is a great photo, and I'd love for this to be the album cover.'"
In the same interview, Hill elaborated:
"It was difficult to do, honestly, in general, it was very difficult. It's difficult even telling people that's the source of it; it feels sacrificial in a sense. That idea existed long before, by the way. This is going to sound funny to other people, but we saw it as tribal, as spiritual, as primal. Also, it comes from a place of being a band that is perceived as...such an aggressive, male-based, by some, misogynistic-seeming band... It's a display of embracing homosexuality, not that either of us are homosexual. Am I making sense? People are still going to think that it's macho, but that's not the source of where it comes from."
The album would finally see its physical release on 13th November 2013 through Harvest Records, sealed in a black slipcase with a disclaimer denoting explicit content. Until then, the album was hosted on streaming sites like YouTube and Soundcloud with a black bar replacing the penis while the band’s own website was forced to feature a similar explicit content warning. The only alternative offered was a photograph of a man with crossed legs and the phrase “suck my dick” visibly printed on his socks. Death Grips’ own statement was much less sympathetic to the easily offended:
"U.S law states you must be 18 years of age to view graphic sexual material. We consider this art."
Death Grips’ relationship with Epic Records had by this time completely disintegrated. The group would make this a public matter by posting confidential emails received from the label regarding their copyright infringement and intention to pick up the album masters for commercial release to their Facebook page, prompting the label to announce their decision to end the business relationship.
By this time everything that there was to say about No Love Deep Web had already been said. The album was well-received and praised for being the band’s most sonically raw, lyrically dark, and ferociously intense project to date.
Featuring a more restrained production style than their previous releases, Death Grips used minimal samples and no manually programmed beats; all beats were played by Hill on either an acoustic or electronic drum set with Flatlander contributing synths over the top with little distortion or effects used to alter their sound. This was effective in bringing MC Ride’s vocal performance to the fore – fitting, as No Love Deep Web shows Ride at his most energetic, confrontational and neurotic, both in his lyrics and his delivery.
“Come Up and Get Me”, for example, depicts Ride being trapped in an eight-storey abandoned building unable to find an escape and losing his mind. The song was likely inspired by the group's two month stay at the notorious Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles; where Led Zeppelin rode Harley-Davidsons through the lobby ("I'm in Jimmy Page's castle") - an act of rock 'n' roll decadence largely at odds with the band's anarchic, nihilistic outlook. Ride welcomes death in lieu of a better option.
"My life is a fuck Ain't one thing I don't hate Tell me my times almost up I will say I can't wait Put your gun to my head I'll blow smoke in your face Think you got what it takes Come up and get me"
“Hunger Games” describes life from the perspective of a paranoid schizophrenic who has stopped taking their medication and the violent thoughts and loss of control that comes as a result. Though it shares its name with the Suzanne Collins novel and resulting movie franchise, it shares little in common with its themes, events or content but the dystopian vision is very much in line with that of Death Grips.
“Subconscious up f-twitch asterisk see off my meds glitch Thoughts squealin' through my mildew, watch my back or I'll kill you Schizo superscript scan the voice imprint only I can hear you”
Ride's lyrics often blend the digital and medical worlds in graphic detail. Here the schizophrenic hallucinations manifest in loss of bodily function, medicine having little effect on the patient. The convulsions are multiple, hence the asterisk - a computing multiplication command.
“No Love” features some of the most graphic content the album has to offer, Ride narrating acts of torture in stomach-churning detail. The song's churning synths punctuate Ride's volatile bars, and it's hard to tell if the song details torturing a fictional victim, himself mentally or a bad drug trip.
“Of course I can make you scream but if you ask for more Bullshit matador grab the floor whip it cracked to all fours You whimper while I check my phone”
Many of the lyrics on No Love Deep Web could be taken at face value, given the ugly mind of the MC Ride persona. However, at a deeper level they could be emblematic of the symbiotic, co-dependent, love/hate relationship between the band and its fans, critics and their position in the music industry.
Closing track “Artificial Death in the West” is a track with several impressionistic lyrical ideas happening all at once. There are references to suicide, premonition, surveillance, and sex - the most intriguing being the title itself, taken from the French expression 'la petite mort': the little death, an orgasm, the sensation therein supposedly being close to death. This production is especially strong here, with Ride’s rhymes set to clacking beats and glacial, retro-futuristic synths.
The often-overlooked production throughout No Love Deep Web stands in stark contrast to that on The Money Store on which Ride’s hooks seem all the more explosive as a result. Here, Ride’s vocals carry the tracks. Though there are definite hooks on tracks like “Hunger Games” and “Lil’ Boy”, Ride is given free rein to flow seamlessly from verse to chorus without much ceremony. Even the more animated tracks on No Love Deep Web, such as “Whammy” and “Bass Rattle Stars Out The Sky”– the latter of which draws clear influence from the early US rave scene – are much less punchy than anything Death Grips had released up to this point in their career. At times, No Love Deep Web seems like a self-imposed challenge to create not just the most minimalist album they could, but also the most unsettling and grimy; they succeeded at this, creating some of the best instrumentals in their expansive and eclectic discography.
“Bass Rattle Stars Out The Sky” features a snappy beat with ear-piercing sirens over the top, while the instrumental on “No Love” is deliberately slow, heavy and awkward. “Lil’ Boy” - another track that points to the influence and subversion of EDM - is a slow-burning, layered, volatile track that shifts in sonic aesthetic as Ride moves from verse to chorus and back, most easily distinguishable by its repetitive, staccato, and high-pinched synth. By contrast, “Lock Your Doors” is muddier and heaving, the perfect soundtrack to a looting spree while “Hunger Games” is a sparse, off-kilter monstrosity.
No Love Deep Web succeeds as an experimental hip hop endeavour due to its interesting production and by allowing the vocalist to colour in the space where more exciting sounds and samples usually would dominate. Though not as immediate or consistent as their debut album, No Love Deep Web expanded the sonic palette and influence of the group. An obvious reference point for Kanye West’s Yeezus and cited by Serge Pizzorno as an influence on Kasabian’s fifth album, 48:13, Death Grips’ second project of 2012 would earn them a reputation as hip hop iconoclasts, the artists of the year to some, and the most vital act of the decade to others.
Listen to No Love Deep Web on Spotify here.