Hip-hop gains standout album in ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’


The Come Up Show from Canada, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After the death of Stepa J. Groggs, Injury Reserve releases a album in dedication of his memory.

Caleb Jenkins, Entertainment Editor

Despite the tragic passing of MC Stepa J. Groggs in June of last year, Injury Reserve is as boundary-pushing as ever on their latest record, By the Time I Get to Phoenix. With influences ranging from rock to noise, the album sounds like nothing the band has ever put out before, making for one of the most unique hip-hop projects of the year. 

Many of the album’s beats — if they can be called that — are crowded and visceral, as the band takes an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to production. Take the single “Superman That” for example, which sounds like what would happen if Black Dice made a hip-hop track. Frontman Ritchie with a T croons in autotune over a hammering, off-kilter instrumental that makes use of a sample from Black Country, New Road’s “Athens, France” of all things. The song, along with much of the album in general, can be incredibly hard to wrap your head around on first listen. This ends up working in the album’s favor as it provides for extra replay value since there is no way to catch everything on a first listen. 

The album’s only feature appearance comes courtesy of ZelooperZ on the track “SS San Francisco,” which sports a dark and somewhat menacing beat that perfectly compliments the Detroit rapper’s manic style. His appearance on the song is relatively brief, but he exits with the memorable final line, “scared to have some kids because the world be going through it,” which is equal parts comedic and honest.

Much of the album’s lyrics seem to be focused primarily on phonesthetics, as phrases repeat in a rambling, hypnotic manner. This expressionistic lyrical style compliments the disorienting instrumentals well, with many lyrics bordering on absurdism, such as the line, “it’s Willie Smith with the inspector gadget / yeah, I’m Norton Rabb with the intergalactic,” on the song “Wild Wild West.” 

Don’t be fooled into thinking every line relies on this approach, though. The song “Top Picks for You” is an emotional highpoint of the record, especially when taken into the context of Groggs’ passing. “Your pattern’s still in place, algorithm still in action,” Ritchie raps, beautifully portraying the lasting impact people have on those close to them, even when they are gone. Similarly, the refrain on the album’s lead single and penultimate track, “Knees,” is a particularly affecting reflection on aging and existentialism: “my knees hurt because I’m growing / and that’s a tough pill to swallow / because I’m not getting taller.” 

As far as the album’s weaknesses go, some tracks seem to lose direction toward the end and come to a stumbling conclusion that isn’t always satisfying, leaving these tracks feeling just slightly incomplete. 

While the dynamic nature of each song is commendable as it prevents the album from ever becoming boring for lack of sonic variance, it seems that some songs are unable to live up to their full potential either because of their brevity or failure to go to the climactic heights they feel like they are building up to. The songs “Ground Zero” and “Wild Wild West” are the two most prominent examples of this, as both reach their zenith too soon and stammer to a finish just as quick. 

Aside from an occasional lack of focus in some moments of the tracklist, By the Time I Get to Phoenix is an ambitious and impassioned undertaking by Injury Reserve. Its frenetic production and abstract lyricism make for one of the year’s most stand out releases in the world of hip-hop and music at large.