Hoping to put the Arizona rap scene on the map, three man group Injury Reserve – which consists of rappers Stepa J. Groggs and Ritchie With a T, and producer Parker Corey – take the grandiose soul of Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and combine it with the kind of minimalist experimentation you’d expect to hear from the likes of Shabazz Palaces or JPEGMAFIA. Their brilliant mixtapes Floss and Live From the Doctor’s Table have rightly resulted in a loyal base of underground rap fans, but their self-titled studio debut takes on a bigger sound sonically while suggesting the group is ready to crossover to a much wider audience.
“Jailbreaker” is an instant banger, which combines Tesla references, trap, and industrial techno to staggering effect — if it doesn’t go viral then something’s wrong with the world. “Three Man Weave,” meanwhile, is driven by lovely sun-drenched synths and a soulful beat that contains the same kind of progressiveness Madlib possessed in his prime. The playful way in which Groggs and Ritchie exchange bars on the latter track is reminiscent of Camp Lo, with both emcees similarly making an art out of talking slick and bouncing niche slang off one another.
The closest thing to a pop single here is probably “Gravy N Biscuits,” a light summer bop that’s a lot of fun. But Injury Reserve work best when their sound is a little rough around the edges, prioritizing distorted bass over polish. Tracks such as “Best Spot in the House,” “GTFU,” and “Wax On” (featuring Freddie Gibbs) are so memorable because it’s clear the group is not following anybody else’s blueprint and are experimenting as boldly as possible. On these tracks, the group’s two emcees rap over unpredictable beats that move from pure aggression to blissful serenity in a way that’s totally alien to what currently blows up on the rap charts. On “Wax On,” Stepa says: “I’ve never been the type to do what the fuck I was told,” and this could almost be the group’s mission statement.
One thing missing from modern rap is satire; an ability among rappers to poke fun at themselves and the sometimes ridiculous excesses of their genre. This makes the sarcastic edge of “Rap Song Tutorial” incredibly welcome. The group takes you through the process of creating a rap song from electronic drums to melody and hook, with each of the elements added to the track one-by-one. It’s a genius parody of modern, Sheck Wes-esque trap anthems and one of the wittiest things an underground rap group has recorded since Phonte took the absolute piss out of sexualized R&B on Little Brother’s “Cheatin’” back in 2005.
The Little Brother reference is intentional. That was another three-man underground group with bags of promise, but a sound that was too unique to truly crossover into the mainstream. What will be fascinating about what comes next here is whether Injury Reserve are open to taking on poppier elements or happy to stay as a cult rap group which doesn’t really see the need in deviating from the experimental sound that made them get noticed in the first place. You sense this will be a real battle internally.
Sure, this record’s energy dips at times, and it’s clear the group is still learning, but on the whole it’s an arresting debut that suggests a very bright future. It will hopefully elevate the group beyond the 700-capacity venues they currently rock like stadiums, but if it doesn’t, I can’t see it being too much of a problem either. On the chaotic banger “Koruna & Lime,” which has some of the sickest horns on a rap track in a long time, Stepa talks about turning down major label deals, while Ritchie With a T raps about “preachy ass niggas out here sounding like a Ted Talk” – both give off the impression that they’re only interested in blowing up on their own terms, and should the mainstream refuse to embrace them, well, then that’s their loss and underground rap’s gain.