Luke Benjamin was also healed by the Phoenix Suns’ medical staff.
I’ve visited Arizona only once, near the end of a fitful cross-country trip. The time mostly burned away in a not cheap enough hotel, tucked absent-mindedly to one side of the Grand Canyon. The greater picture could be called impressively barren, a horse stable and a lonely pool the only material suggestions of human life.
Injury Reserve is a rap trio from Arizona, though not the Arizona I’ve described. The group was molded in the synthetic sprawl of Phoenix—the desert state’s one great oasis. Phoenix is a place with precious little of a hip-hop inheritance, far enough off from California to lack clear antecedents, and like the state itself, mostly devoid of a meaningful past. This lack of a compass, or really any coherent and consistent roadmark, allows for a lot of free space and isolated coloring.
Injury Reserve is a protean group of rap pioneers who engage more with the boundaries they mutate than any traceable heritage. They emerged into the ether with last year’s Floss, an ambitious uproar of a debut, that scowled and barked at anyone who would listen. It was brash and great, overcooked in the best way, with brimful production and dense, knock-you-out rapping. To get a sense for the record, you need only listen to the ballistic “All This Money,” a brawling standout that sits somewhere between Death Grips and Blu, with a punky DIY grime as patina.
It won’t grab your ear as much as hold it for ransom, heavy bass shaking like a faultline underneath the growled chorus. Served alongside the mania were helpings of grasping depth, deprecating humor, and unshakeable clarity, separating the group from would-be mimics. Floss was principally self-styled “Spazz Rap,” crossed with internet placelessness and a distaste for paint-by-the-numbers suburban ennui, the sort of effort that lashes out from speakers with utter disregard for bystanders and disdain for quietude.
Their latest album, Drive It Like It’s Stolen, is not that, comparatively spare and just quieter, yet invariably more weighty. The new record comes in step with a relocation to Pasadena and a refresh of vision, pared down and pointed, slicing at the ectoplasm of expectation and convention.
The beats from Parker Corey take cues from Arca and the near-ambient spaciousness of an album like Frank Ocean’s Blonde but with a different lilt, embracing the same negative space found in Arizona’s cacti dappled fringes. This leaves ample room for the rapping, and the two MC’s deliver, Ritchie and Stepa Groggs taking part in a symbiotic if competitive interplay that presses both towards outer limits of observation and reflection.
The whole is more insular and shoegazing than its predecessor, though the sound pallette is increasingly expansive, in part exchanging blurred abstraction for seen and lived insight. A song like “North Pole” is deeply felt, tangible to the point of actual chills, the spoken hook detached enough to separate a little from the painful intimacy: “Plastic confidence I know you see-through /Nothing feels faster than a reboot /Nothing feels only like a half-truth / Spiral twist, over it”
The following number, “Colors,” is a similar strain of liquor depressed meditation, vocal manipulations making the human sound near alien, a missive delivered from the bleakness of this world and beyond. The play with color eases the entry into fraught circumstances and concepts: “Yeah, Blu said we below the heavens, we ain’t living in hell /But I’ve been blue since Sandra Bland was murdered in jail / And we know black and browns ain’t living as well /All things ain’t pink brah / The grass gets greener.”
The repetition of the hook rings almost hymnal, as if repeating it will bring absolution or escape. That these sentiments were borne from the soft-hued, ersatz paradise of Pasadena implies a dissonance, but to think that is to discount this heavy year. If 2017 has taught us anything, it’s that the horrors of a clown car dystopia—quickly careening towards demise—touch us all.
The album moves beyond dwelling on anxieties and carnival mirror dread frequently however, returning briefly to old formulas on “See You Sweat” and “BOOM 3x;” the trio dashing both records with degrees of added heat. “See You Sweat” sirens and leers, dripping in cheap charisma and hissed desire. It’s begging to be played at humid basement house parties, with liquor slicked concrete floors and ceilings too low to stand up straight.
True to its name, the latter, “BOOM 3x,” rumbles indiscriminately, sparring with all comers and piercing righteous hypocrisy, quaking to a similar magnitude as “All This Money.” It contains one of Ritchie’s sharpest sequences: “That old, white n***a saying, ‘See, I don’t do the rap thing /But I can actually understand you, I dig that /And you don’t talk about the guns and you flip crack.’ /Well, listen up, Baxter, well, see, I get that /But we won’t agree on as much as you think, Jack.”
“Chin Up (outro)” brings the seven track album to a close, and is brisk even for its length, not quite breakneck and thoroughly controlled. Though Injury Reserve operates with little abandon, Drive It Like It’s Stolen shows a growing mastery of the wheel; still wholly idiosyncratic but more aware of what it wants to do. All of the members finding new pockets for growth in a trio that has loyally, and intentionally, stayed closed.