Injury Reserve are a hip hop group from Arizona whose work spans multiple sub-genres, including experimental hip hop and jazz rap. Their sophomore album By the Time I Get to Phoenix follows the 2020 death of member Stepa J Groggs, and is directly informed by the grief of remaining members Ritchie with a T and Parker Corey.
By the Time I Get to Phoenix is as much a sonic eulogy as it is a brilliant post-rap album; its surreal, strange soundscape is reminiscent of Radiohead’s masterwork Kid A, with abrasive industrial sounds and bellowing, hazy instrumentals and vocals. Its postmodern deconstruction is as firmly post-rap as can be, with traditional song structures thrown out in favour of emotional power, inconsistent time signatures, and stream of consciousness lyrical style – it never lets you get too comfortable in its ever-shifting movements.
‘Outside’ is a sad, bitter opener. Ritchie with a T’s growing breathlessness gives the song an oppressive, claustrophobic quality – ironically opposed to its title. The beat that emerges is heard alongside the sounds of quick, pained breathing, reflecting the harsh panic of grief.
‘Superman That’ ventures into glitch-hop territory, with chaotic notes reflecting the lyrics sung alongside: ‘Ain’t no saving me / Ain’t no saving me or you.’
These chilling lyrics are mirrored in ‘Top Picks For You’, the highlight of the album for its intense lyrics and warped synths which drag the song along, while Ritchie with a T speaks in slow, strained breaths: “I felt loss but a hole like this I never coulda imagined”, implying the emptiness felt after Grogg’s death. Notably the song has a more solid structure, allowing for a greater footing to be found amid its ominousness. This song in particular is reminiscent of Kid A, being similar to ‘How to Disappear Completely’, due to the wailing synths and oppressive weight.
‘Knees’, the lead single, is dreary and heavy, with punchy instrumentation and vocal refrains lending the song a strong sense of repetition. ‘Knees’ is about wanting to go back in time to re-experience life, and the dissatisfaction which comes from knowing you can’t, and that those who were around at the time might no longer be.
The album closer, ‘Bye Storm’, declares that “The show must go on”, offering some optimism to what is otherwise a desolate set of tracks. Alongside this optimism though is a sense of struggle, as the song explores how to get out from a dark place, but says “There’s only so much two arms can truly hold”.
With By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Injury Reserve have pushed post-rap to its next incarnation; it is a powerful, intense work which gives an insight into the group’s mourning, through its strange surrealistic soundscapes and passionate stream of conscious songwriting. By the Time I Get to Phoenix is the most important experimental hip hop album to emerge in recent years, due to its unfiltered presentation of emotion and masterful blending of normally discordant sounds. Most of its weight is certainly as a beautiful, haunting tribute to the late Steppa J Groggs, and as that, the album succeeds greatly.
Words by James Ward
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