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Injury Reserve
By The Time I Get to Phoenix Liam Inscoe-Jones , September 21st, 2021 08:28

Following the death of Stepa J. Groggs in 2020, Injury Reserve weave new music from some of the rapper's final verses

There was an alternative reality where Injury Reserve became as big as Drake. Anyone who heard their 2016 album Floss heard that. A collective of two rappers Stepa J. Groggs and Ritchie with a T plus producer Parker Corey from the very un-hip-hop Arizona, they had a De La Soul sense of mischief and a Kanye-bounce. They could rap, yes, but they could make pop songs in the same breath that they made bangers. Throw on ‘S On Ya Chest’ and hear a group who were witty and smile-inducing to a rare degree.

Hearing them release tracks like this five years ago made a future as huge stars feel guaranteed. But a series of tragedies took the group down a darker, more introspective route, and then in 2020 Groggs died, at age thirty-two. Their latest album, By The Time I Get to Phoenix (named by Groggs in one of his final conversations with his band mates), seems to render that fate as stars almost impossible.

The album was produced either side of Grogg’s death, meaning it joins the likes of Tribe Called Quest’s 2016 We Got It From Here... as a rap album which pays tribute to a member of the group whose verses appear on the same album. In the wake of tragedy, the music is also disorientatingly different from any of their previously material – even their more experimental moments. Their idea for the sound came from the soundboard recordings from an improvised DJ set they played at the back of an Italian restaurant in Stockholm in 2019. Accordingly, many of the songs feel like snippets from maelstroms of sound which could stretch on for hours in each direction

Sonically, there are certainly parallels in artists like Navy Blue, Moor Mother, Slausone Malone, and the weirder tendencies of JPEGMAFIA, but there are also parts which sound like suites from freaky jazz fusion or post-rock, genuinely new blends of music which are abstract and abrasive. In a possible first for a rap song, ‘SS San Francisco’ has the patient menace of a Tom Waits ballad and, speaking of Tom Waits, ‘Smoke Don’t Clear’ pitches down Ritchie’s voice so low that it makes Waits sound like a cherub. Paired with some frantic wallops of sub-bass, the song sounds like much of this album does: deeply ominous, scary even.

The project only really works when taken as a whole, too. In isolation, singles ‘Superman That’ and ‘Knees’ felt a little indirect but, taken as part of the record as a whole, the former becomes a banger, catchy and trunk-rattling, and the latter morphs into a ballad, a tender ode to a lost friend.

The dark centre piece of the album is ‘Top Picks for You’, a haunting tune which sees Ritchie remarking on the digital footprint his friend left behind. “Grab the remote, pops up something you would’ve watched, I’m like classic” he raps, “this some shit I would’a seen you watch and then just laughed at / your patterns are still in place and your algorithm is still in action / just workin’ so that you can just jump right back in”. It’s sinister to think that our digital life will live on after our real one, like a modern ghost story.

One of the defining themes of Injury Reserve’s best music was overcoming impossible hurdles: struggles of age, paycheques, and industry connections. With the death of Groggs, this album depicts the Bad Ending. They did not, in fact, make it. It joins the annals of desolate and broken works, like Skeleton Tree and Purple Mountains. It’s also an album whose rewards have to be worked for, and that makes it a challenging listen. We’re a long way from the diamond-sharp bangers which made their name. But it’s also incredibly rare to remain invested in a band whose style has changed so drastically. Injury Reserve have shape-shifted, and been through more than many young acts can imagine, but remain captivating to this day. I hope they keep making music.