Injury Reserve’s latest album is all over the place, but it’s beautiful
Injury Reserve is a hip hop group known for their jazz rap mixtapes, their self-titled debut album Injury Reserve from 2019, and their quirky sense of humour. However, they’ve been through a lot as a band in the short span of just two years. The pandemic, personal turmoil, and the political uproar that occurred in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020 pushed the trio to move away from their already defined sound, and work on a project darker in tone.
While it was supposed to drop in 2020, the tragic passing of core member Stepa J. Groggs put the album on hold and the future of the band still remains uncertain. It was only this past August that the remaining members quietly dropped a new single and announced that the album would release on Sept. 15. Since its release, I’ve listened to this album five times and have processed my thoughts about it. One thing is certain: if this ends up being Injury Reserve’s final record, then I can rest easy knowing they put out one of the best albums of this year.
By the Time I Get to Phoenix is quite haunting in its presentation. The album is defined by its lo-fi distorted sampling paired with abstract lyrics that are almost incoherent at times. It gives the album a raw, visceral, and manic sound. Tracks like the opener, “Outside,” are filled with odd panting and words being repeated frantically by lead rapper Ritchie with a T. The song amounts to almost lyrical gibberish accompanied by a busted chiptune sample looping in different variations.
Another incredible track, “Superman That,” is one of the highlights on the album and is all over the place in terms of structure. It’s a weird blend of EDM, autotune, and rap, and it’s hard to even describe what kind of genre it is. It’s explosive, lyrically depressing, and creates a sense of anxiety.
At times, the abstract nature of the album gives off the feeling that certain songs are incomplete demo tapes or lost recordings that weren’t meant to be heard. While I had issues with a few tracks sounding similar, I think the often barebone elements of the record’s production are necessary to its overall themes, even if it makes the project hard to listen to casually. Parts of the album can say a lot without saying anything at all, and “Wild Wild West” is one of the best examples. The song delves completely into the rise of conspiracy theories: Ritchie impersonates a conspiracy theorist and rambles on about 5G towers being set up everywhere by the “Inspector Gadget.”
The late Groggs has some incredible vocal performances on the album. His screeching on “Footwork in a Forest Fire” brings a lot of heat and energy, and “Knees” is one of Groggs’ most vulnerable performances and takes a hard look at his mental state before his passing:
I should probably take this booze off my rider
Okay, this last one is my last one, shit
Probably said that about the last one
Probably gon’ say it about the next two
Well fuck it n****, at least my dreads grew
This dark and emotional moment perfectly characterizes the album. The song’s depressive themes of falling back into bad habits such as alcoholism, feeling stuck in a place and unable to grow as a person, make it a hard song to process.
Ritchie also provides some of his best material on the album with “Top Picks for You.” Through spoken word, Ritchie delves into grief and attempts to move on. It is the most straightforward song on the album in a sea of abstractness. He delves into how despite the fact that the people he’s lost are no longer physically present, bits and pieces of themselves that they left behind are a constant reminder that they once existed. For example, even with the passing of the person he grieves, algorithms on subscription services they shared such as Netflix still recommend shows that this person watched, but never finished. The system is asking the user if they want to “jump back in”:
Grab the remote, pops up something you would’ve watched, I’m like “Classic”
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
But you ain’t jumpin’ back
While the album can be difficult to digest given its themes, abstractness, and eerie production, the overall listening experience is probably one of the best I’ve had this year. I find myself diving into this album often to help absorb the impact of these dark times.
Trial Track: Superman That