‘Make some weird shit’:
By the Time I Get to Phoenix is more than just a eulogy
The sudden news of Jordan Alexander Groggs’ death in the summer of 2020 saddened me immeasurably. Since 2013, Stepa J. Groggs had formed part of alternative hip-hop outfit Injury Reserve with fellow rapper/vocalist Nathaniel Ritchie (Ritchie with a T) and producer Parker Corey, three minds whose boundless creativity had cemented the group’s reputation as one of the most distinctive and progressive in underground rap. Their output is one crammed with party bangers and slow jams, bursting with abrasive industrial aggro and jovial old-skool charisma, peppered with acerbic diatribes and introspective reflection, all the while interrogating the boundaries of what can feasibly be labelled ‘hip-hop’. What’s more, this was achieved over the course of a handful of mixtapes and one studio album – they were just getting started.
It was clear from the outset that By the Time I Get to Phoenix was going to be a different beast altogether. Naturally, fans were uncertain whether there would even be any more music put out under the Injury Reserve banner following Groggs’ passing. Then there was the obvious looming issue of just how his input and influence – in life and in death – would be incorporated into any future output, if and when it materialised (as it happens, the album title was one of Groggs’ final creative contributions). Indeed, prospects of a run-of-the-mill Injury Reserve record rapidly dwindled with the release of ‘Knees’ back in August, closely followed by ‘Superman That’ dropping in September. These were two messy, perplexing, yet utterly compelling tracks, both featuring a disconsolate Ritchie crooning over erratic bursts of electric guitar. Suffice to say, when the group claimed they ‘stayed true to [Groggs’] constant insistence…to simply “make some weird shit”’, they meant it.
Before moving on, a clarification: I won’t be conducting a specific lyrical analysis of this album or commenting on any personal sentiment it conveys. This is because I essentially wouldn’t feel comfortable engaging in any sort of emotional conjecture regarding what this project means to the group. They have done justice to a fallen comrade in their own inalienable way, and it’s not for me to adjudicate on the efficacy of their tribute. Instead, I’d like to explore this record on a purely instrumental level, to dissect how it behaves sonically, and to celebrate the understated brilliance of Parker Corey. Perhaps unsurprisingly, such aspects of the album were somewhat stifled under discourse surrounding – in their own words – the ‘turmoil’, ‘social upheaval’ and ‘family tragedy’ which indelibly shaped its release. It’s for that very reason I feel it necessary to shed light on the uniquely compelling musical content that was also crafted despite such disquiet.
More so than ever before in the Injury Reserve discography, the term ‘hip-hop’ is only applicable here in the loosest sense. Even by his eclectic standards, Corey flips a range of samples well beyond your average beatmaker’s sonic remit of soul, jazz, funk etc., from obscure Venezuelan New Age to Windmill-scene weirdos Black Country, New Road and black midi (the latter’s Morgan Simpson provides additional drumming as well). ‘SS San Francisco’ feels closer to a moody post-rock dirge than a hip-hop beat, courtesy of a sinister riff borrowed from The Fall. On ‘Top Picks for You’, Ritchie’s forlorn soliloquy sits atop an amorphous wash of spacey synths. Opening track ‘Outside’ plays out its own cinematic odyssey with a heaving, wheezing outro passage that wouldn’t sound out of place in the latest Hollywood sci-fi reboot.
But what grabs me most about these instrumentals is how so many of them feel rhythmically frustrated or metrically challenged. They’re always wonky or lopsided somehow, often ungainly, rarely robust. They couldn’t be further in essence from the conventional 2- or 4-bar looping patterns which form the structural backbone of rap beats to this day. For a large swathes of this record, any scent of a pulse is fleeting at best. There aren’t many tracks you can nod your head to, put it that way. Even if a track settles for a relatively discernible tempo, such as ‘Footwork in a Forest Fire’, its jumbled, disorienting soundscape hampers any sense of straightforward grounding.
Granted, there are still plenty of drums and other percussion laced – or, more accurately, littered – throughout these instrumentals, so they aren’t quite rhythmically nebulous in the style of ambient music. Instead, tracks such as ‘Wild Wild West’ and ‘Postpostpartum’ are abstract in their jittery, stop-start nature; they seemingly struggle to articulate themselves or acquire coherence. This is music sat tantalisingly on the cusp of groove, coughing, spluttering, stuttering.
Upon its announcement, Injury Reserve described ‘what felt like haunting pre-echoes’ resonating throughout this album, and at no point can that be felt stronger than on ‘Knees’. The track finds Groggs detailing his issues with alcohol over a beat that sounds like it’s gasping for air. With its fragmented, hiccupping sonics, the production is as tangled and turbulent as the mental states expressed in verse. Just as its lyrics grapple with life’s torments, so too does the instrumental clutch at rhythmic straws. Both actively seek a sure foundation, both fall tragically short.
I feel it would be crass to draw subconscious symbolic parallels here, to reach for something as tenuous or tortured as suggesting this ‘limping’ musical quality somehow signifies the band ‘limping on’ after Groggs’ passing. It would be factually incorrect as well; Ritchie disclosed on Twitter that ‘Knees’ was recorded months before his death (‘I want everyone to know we were joyful when we made these tracks’). Nevertheless, it’s clear all was not well with the band, even by that point. In fact, it’s worth noting here that Ritchie and Corey say they wouldn’t have gone ahead with By the Time I Get to Phoenix if it had turned out to be a more upbeat, energetic affair like many of their previous projects. It’s by sheer coincidence that Groggs features are sparse on the album, though this does bring an added retrospective poignancy to them. So while the album is by no means an act of morbid clairvoyance, its mere release served as a tacit acknowledgement of its overarching themes of heartache.
Sure enough, there is a nagging sense that this wilfully leaden approach to movement on the production for ‘Knees’ – as well as the fundamental lack of momentum which can be felt throughout the record more broadly – hints at something latent within the psyche, something even deeper, darker, more desolate than the gloomy aimlessness expressed lyrically. Towards its close, as everything gradually fractures and dissolves around him, Groggs sounds at his most broken and vulnerable. When compared to the carefree exuberance of ‘Three Man Weave’, the life-affirming closer to their 2019 debut, it’s hard to imagine a more heartbreakingly stark contrast.
There is solace, however. Out from under the rubble, ‘Bye Storm’ rises up, washing over the listener like a warm, fuzzy, Eno-sampling tide. Ultimately – triumphantly – clear harmonic direction is outlined, and rhythmic stability is restored. As Ritchie intones his wry but heartfelt send-off, all prior sorrows, doubts and uncertainties are suppressed, at least momentarily. It’s the slow fade-out at the end of a gruelling epic, acceptance writ large, catharsis in musical form. The show must go on.
I appreciate this piece reads as more of a love letter to Parker Corey than anything else, but I’m okay with that. Arguably, our appreciation of the role of the producer in modern hip-hop is at an all-time high thanks to hugely popular behind-the-scenes YouTube shows such as Genius: Deconstructed and Kenny Beats’ The Cave. On the other hand, it often feels as though such videos serve to flesh out a beatmaker’s personality as much as anything, to let them be the centre of attention for once. More power to them, but that’s not really Parker’s style. He’s a shy, reserved character who lets his production do the talking. Of course this record is the result of a collective artistic chemistry, but seldom does a producer carve out such a distinct aural identity for themselves in a genre so dominated by wordplay and vocal delivery (obnoxious audio tags aside). What’s more, of the names within this category, none have made anything that sounds even vaguely similar to what Corey has fashioned here. I’m not here to try and state definitively that the wheel of sample-based hip-hop has been completely reinvented, but I’m not far off it.
Critical and cultural discussion of this record has revolved around the emotional potency of its pervasive anguish, and understandably so in light of such immense grief. But I don’t think we should allow such eulogistic qualities to overshadow its artistic accomplishments. Experimental hip-hop often gets characterised as a noisy, chaotic, frenzied genre, and some of its most notable recent proponents certainly fit such a description (think Death Grips’s The Money Store, Danny Brown’s Atrocity Exhibition, JPEGMAFIA’s Veteran). Conversely, By the Time I Get to Phoenix demonstrates that jarring maximalism isn’t the sole path to emotive effect in this sphere. It confronts and it confounds, but it doesn’t always barrage or berate. At its most arresting, it’s not a brazen sonic belligerence that crushes the spirit, but a startling lack thereof. It wears its heart under its sleeve, not on it. Its experimentation is subtle, more an exercise in cryptic impressionism than forthright expressionism. It doesn’t obliterate conventional boundaries so much as smudge them. While there are trademark Injury Reserve flashes of light-heartedness and humour to prevent it spiralling into total austerity, this record holds a cold and alienating beauty at its core.
It’s ‘weird shit’, that’s for sure.