Everything Death Grips offered us ahead of Year of the Snitch, the cult band’s sixth studio full-length, indicated that we would be getting exactly what we’ve come to expect from one of the group’s LPs. Lead single “Streaky” was of the slinky, groovy variety interspersed with siren-like synths, while “Black Paint” offered their token non-stop violent punk-thrasher. Mere days before its release, a visual was unveiled for “Shitshow” that depicted, among other things, close-up shots of a woman urinating and a man wiping his butt, ensuring that Death Grips have lost none of their instincts to make visual provocations in addition to their aural assaults.
Of course (in a move we probably should have seen coming) Year of the Snitch is absolutely nothing we could have anticipated. Where their previous album, 2016’s supremely-realized Bottomless Pit, deftly balanced the moshpit-freakouts and radioactive club-cuts that represent both ends of their sonic spectrum with particular attention paid to polished production, Year of the Snitch entirely flips that last notion on its head. Every kind of Death Grips song is here, but they have all been submerged in a lo-fi, fuzzy style of production which, inevitably, becomes a component every bit as essential as their stylistic hallmarks on this go-round.
Far more than a simple aesthetic choice, the band leans in on this element and milks it for all its worth. It provides an unmistakable sense of character and self-aware humor to the album, one that makes the project come off as a public access TV program-version of Death Grips versus an actual Death Grips record. Whether that works to the album’s benefit is debatable, but it clearly paints Year of the Snitch as an outlier in their catalog; a contender for their oddest album yet in a career full of oddities.
This quality is best exemplified in “Dilemma,” a collaboration with film director Andrew Adamson (of Shrek fame) that received a fair bit of publicity beforehand from the sheer audacity of this creative pairing. Opening with a brief spoken word from Adamson indicating that he’s “in the studio” with the band, the track opens as the sort of paranoiac, synth warble one would expect to find in a ’70s cop thriller before eventually filling itself out with a slew of hard, descending guitar riffs to give the chorus its muscle. MC Ride plays it utterly straight in his vocal delivery – even through lines like “I taxiderm shams with morbid shinto” – in stark contrast to the hilariously-contrived sound effects beneath him. Taken together, “Dilemma” comes off as a pseudo-take on Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” though it is far too muted an affair to warrant true comparison to the Beasties’ legendary screamer.
Therein lies a truth that may be too hard to swallow for some fans; by any measure, this is the most mild-mannered release of Death Grips’ career. They have lost none of the intensity of their attitude, but here, the presentation elicits a barrier for the listener; as if we are a step removed from the raw power of their previous works and enjoying a market-tested, safely-packaged version of the Death Grips brand. “Black Paint,” the most hardcore cut from Year of the Snitch, is a pounding, caterwaul of rage awash in reverb and one engaging riff after the other, and yet it is tightly-contained. If it had appeared on any other Death Grips album, it would literally blow you out of your chair and rattle your ear drums the point of tinnitus, but here it is played matter-of-factly and with concision.
This is of course by some design, but nothing is ever as it seems with Death Grips. What remains is an album that consistently misdirects our expectations at every turn while elaborating on the band’s dark web-character and meme-proclivity to a profound degree. “Flies” has the seeds of a great Death Grips song inside, but instead of building the melodic bridge they set up with that great, visceral hook, they take a deep dive into their own backwash – creating a patchwork quilt of their own samples (culled from two cuts from their 2012 breakthrough The Money Store and a track from debut mixtape Exmilitary) that is alternately trunk-rattling and anti-climactic. “The Fear” overlays circus-like keyboards on top of manic, jazz-like freestyling while “Little Richard” is a slice of ’90s hard techno filtered through the theme song to a long-lost gameshow.
Which is all a way of saying that Year of the Snitch, though markedly easier on the ears than their other albums, is a complex, layered listen, aided in no small part by its remarkable commitment to a concept none of us (perhaps not even the band themselves) may ever truly come to grasp. It is by no means their best nor their most accessible work, but it serves as a fascinating exercise for Death Grips; a silencer to the critics who peg them as a one-trick pony and, in its own way, a test of faith for their infamously loyal fanbase. If anything, it is a seamless debut outing of the Death Grips-ethos in a post-Trump world – when chaos reigns, they become not the focal point of our dark energy but the gleeful carnival barker, eager to redirect it where ever it serves them best.