Injury Reserve’s ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ expresses pain through groundbreaking music

The experimental rap group Injury Reserve released their second studio album, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix", on Sept. 15. via Amazon

Injury Reserve’s future suddenly became uncertain following the passing of key member Stepa J. Groggs in June 2020. The experimental hip-hop trio, composed of rappers Groggs (Jordan Groggs), Ritchie with a T (Nathaniel Ritchie) and producer Parker Corey, was suddenly a duo. This summer, they finally announced the release of their newest album “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” (2021). The album, released Sept. 15, is their sophomore studio record and it is a genre-demolishing, mind-bending album full of sadness, aggression and hope.

“Outside” is a mysterious yet beautiful opening track. Something about the hodgepodge of bass, warped synths and Ritchie With A T’s distorted rapping gives this song a feeling that something is wrong, but you cannot help but stay and listen. As with songs like “Ground Zero” and “Wild Wild West” on the record, “Outside” pushes the boundaries on what a song really can be.

“Knees,” the lead single, is an incredibly moving song, flipping Black Midi’s “Sweater” into an abstract ballad. “Knees hurt me when I grow, and that’s a tough pill to swallow, because I’m not gettin’ taller,” Ritchie croons. Accompanying the song was a music video of Ritchie and Corey sitting on boxes on a stage, faces in their hands, heads down looking at the ground. Every time the instrumental hits, a bright light flashes behind them, only showing their silhouettes. When Groggs’ verse begins, his silhouette appears with them, but no one is behind the mic stand once the lights dim. The longing for his electrifying presence is a blow to the heart, and the listener feels the pain that Ritchie and Corey feel in this video. The song “Top Picks for You” is similarly saddening, with a beat that sounds like it’s crying and Ritchie sounding like he’s on the verge of tears the entire song.

On the flip side, “Footwork in a Forest Fire” and “Smoke Don’t Clear” feature higher-tempo, more urgent beats with frantic vocal performances. Other than “Knees,” “Footwork in a Forest Fire” is the only other solo verse contribution from Groggs on the album, and Groggs delivers it as if he’s escaping a forest fire. Another subtlety of this record is that a fair amount of philosophical and political points are addressed through this record. This track is related to the ongoing forest fires that have plagued the western United States, including the Phoenix area close to Injury Reserve’s origin in Tempe, Ariz. “Smoke Don’t Clear” brings another moment so hectic it’s unclear if it is even a song.

“Superman That,” the album’s second single, is another hard-hitting song with drums sounding like they’re tripping over each other. Ritchie has one of his most off-kilter verses, rapping as if there is a consistent beat to follow and crying out the chorus, “Ain’t no savin’ me, ain’t no savin’ me or you.” Following this track is “SS San Francisco,” starring an instrumental that sounds as if you’re slowly descending into the abyss of the ocean, but the water is slowly becoming lava. Ritchie’s rapping is distorted and drunken as featured rapper Zelooperz comes in with powerful background vocals and an impressive verse. “Know my body mad at me because it be goin’ through it/ Scared to have some kids because the world be goin’ through it” he raps. The concluding song “Bye Storm” is an excellent conclusion to the record, hinting at a shine of hope that everything will be alright.

Injury Reserve has garnered a small but very vocal and passionate fan base. With the release of a less accessible album, it’s admirable to see the positive feedback this phenomenal album is receiving from fans and journalists. As mentioned before, the group’s future is still uncertain. They could continue to perform as Injury Reserve, take on a new form or pursue separate musical endeavors. It’s sad to see the band arrive at this point so soon, but fans worldwide are thankful for this piece of art from Ritchie and Core.

Injury Reserve’s live performances are famously intense and enjoyable, and one of their first-ever shows as a duo will take place at Crystal Ballroom on Oct. 12, featuring a performance with Slauson Malone 1 in Davis Square.


Summary

"By the Time I Get to Phoenix", Injury Reserve's first release since the passing of Stepa J. Groggs, is an exploration into pain, mourning, and moving on through one of the most experimental albums of the century so far.

4.5 stars
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