Injury Reserve is a hip hop trio I’ve admired since their breakout debut, Live from the Dentist Office - a quirky, jazz-rap record full of ambitious bangers. Their captivating, experimental sound, creative usage of sampling, and potent lyrical themes started hitting even harder on Floss, which presented an interesting sonical turnaround with even catchier beats and (in my view) bolder production from Parker Corey that perfectly complements Stepa J Groggs and Ritchie with a T’s slick delivery. Their contrasting vocal territories existing on top of Corey’s weird but infectious beats made every next Injury Reserve track more fun and exciting.
When Groggs died last year, their most recent album, By The Time I Get To Phoenix, was already nearly done, and dropped posthumously in 2021. The experimental sound on the teaser track ‘Knees’ struck me as unexpectedly otherworldly and strange, even for Injury Reserve. Groggs rapping about alcoholism and getting joint pains from obesity (“my knees hurt when I grow“) over dissonant samples from no other than Black Midi creates an anxiety-inducing, painful and depressing vibe that ultimately amounts to a hugely heart-wrenching track, which, in the context of Groggs’ death, provides an insight into his wretched mental state during his final days. To me, the song feels like one of those terrifying nightmare-ish dreams where you’re trying to run away from something but your legs consistently keep failing you, leaving you glued to the pavement to drown in terror.
By the Time I Get to Phoenix makes Money Store look like an Olivia Rodrigo album
I still wasn’t sure whether this was an anomalous track or an overarching vibe until ‘Superman That’ dropped and I realised the size of the sonic shift the band was attempting. With Ritchie and Groggs’ vocals being largely drowned out in an abrasive sea of sounds featuring Black Country, New Road samples, the created sense of apocalyptic despair comes out utterly chilling. Ritchie’s auto-tuned “Ain’t no saving me or you”, with an emphasis on the repeating “or you”, makes the track feel impersonal; more like a generalised existential scream, an inevitable end or descent into madness that we are all bound to face, rather than an introspection on any one person’s mental state in particular. This loss of sanity trajectory is even scarier when the track is listened to as a follow-up to the opener, ‘Outside’, which is beautifully tense and claustrophobic. The inclusion of breaths throughout the track, especially at the end, over catchy but unsettling Dot samples, with verses like “you gotta give people enough room to hang themself”, generates this feeling of suffocation, as if you’re meeting your demise in a space capsule that is slowly but surely losing all oxygen.
This pair of tracks is followed by the slightly more harmonic ‘SS San Francisco’ that nonetheless continues this visceral vibe, with elegant, robotic vocal editing from Corey and a scattered palette of eerie sounds over the main guitar tune. The song reads like a scream of resistance, a desire to break free. ‘Footwork in a Forest Fire’ then counters this with further hopeless descent, giving us a repeating, sinister sample, which maintains a life of its own, raging independently from Groggs and Ritchie’s rapping and fading into disquieting emptiness by the end, creating the vibe of an unrelenting forest fire. The vocals are mostly overpowered by the music, which is a recurring theme on this project that adds to this feeling of overwhelming powerlessness, of our subduction to forces outside our control. The most memorable thing on the track, however, is Groggs’ loud and fantastic delivery – in fact, this is one of the few tracks where you can unambiguously feel Groggs’ presence, in spite of all the drowning noises. ‘Ground Zero’, the next track, is where the hopelessness peaks in intensity, with the album toning down on the ear-piercing, abrasive sounds in favour of a more monotonous, but nonetheless equally blood-boiling and cacophonous atmosphere that feels terrifyingly claustrophobic and almost schizophrenic, with Groggs and Ritchie competing for verses like devilish voices inside your head.
"Your patterns are still in place and algorithm still in action"
The album then proceeds into what is undoubtedly my favourite track, ‘Top Picks for You’ – a song which completely mentally obliterated me. At its core, the song is the sound of grieving itself, but not in a typical sad, piano-led, tear-jerker, Titanic sort of way – this is raw grief translated into sound with little to no attempt to make the track more digestible or appealing, retaining all the messiness and mental disruptiveness that comes along with the sensation – something captured perfectly by Corey’s masterful production. Lyrically, I find this the best track on the album, with Ritchie’s verses being more heart-breaking than ever, full of touching recollections of a loved one’s habits. My favourite line on the whole project is found on this cut, with Ritchie referencing a metaphorical algorithm that is still running, patiently awaiting the person’s return as if nothing happened (“Your patterns are still in place and algorithm still in action// just workin’ so that you can just// jump right back in” ), but the person never jumping back in, leaving behind all these painful reminders. The following track, ‘Wild Wild West’, feels just as disorienting and paranoid as the rest, with a strange, chaotic ramble about 5G and Will Smith cooperating with the noisy sound to achieve this. ‘Postpostpartum’ then reads like a desperate but futile attempt at escaping this mental disintegration, with Ritchie feeling stuck in time. Combined with the message of this track, ‘Knees’ then strikes me as even more potent than when I first heard it as a single, adding a layer of spatial confinement to this claustrophobia. The only glimpse of light this project offers us is contained within the closer, with a slightly more hopeful instrumental and verses like “Bye storm” and “Show must go on”, but the optimism remains very unconvincing, full of fatigue and despondency, as the nature of all storms is that they come back. The feeling of peace is only ever temporary. The second half of the closer is purely instrumental, almost as if there should have been vocals over it, making Groggs’ absence glaringly apparent. I really feel like no production choice could have been a better, more Injury Reserve ode to a passed friend than this.
I can't remember the last time I was this awestruck by a piece of experimental hip hop
Overall, I can’t remember the last time I was this awestruck by a piece of experimental hip hop, with only JPEGMAFIA’s Veteran and Death Grips’ Money Store striking me as comparable in terms of boldness, and even these amazing projects inflict nowhere near this much emotional turmoil on their listeners. Frankly, with regards to its noisy sound and experimentation, By The Time I Get To Phoenix makes Money Store look like an Olivia Rodrigo record. Injury Reserve’s incredible hip hop masterpiece posthumously honours Stepa’s constant wish to “make some weird shit”, and it does so in the best possible way which is neither pretentious nor shallow. Honestly, after this insane rollercoaster that not only pushes the boundaries of hip hop, but in many ways music itself, I cannot wait to hear what the duo has in store for us next.