Album Review: Grip – I Died For This!?

[Shady; 2021]

Shady Records, at least in its latter days, is nothing if not unpredictable. While he doggedly sticks to the same styles in his own music, label head Eminem has certainly learned from the mistakes applied to his second generation of artists. Having left rather too many fingerprints over records by Yelawolf and Slaughterhouse, he’s adopted a largely hands-off approach to the next cohort, essentially letting the likes of Westside Boogie and Griselda’s Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine do as they please.

That same approach has certainly been applied, perhaps more than ever, to the label’s newest signee: underrated Atlanta rapper Grip. Having produced one of recent years’ most underheard hip hop projects with 2019’s Snubnose, he reached Paul Rosenberg’s ears, and then, naturally, Mr. Mathers’ as well. Impressed by Grip’s already well-rounded artistry and creativity, not to mention the serious sense of vision displayed on the aforementioned album, he was quickly added to the Shady roster.

Speed is truly a key factor here. While Grip has shared that the process was naturally longer than it appeared – paperwork and such – the dash to release his debut album for the label has essentially been unheard of. Forget the lengthy gestation periods of many of the label’s artists (and one that never seems to end for Conway’s God Don’t Make Mistakes), Grip’s major label debut has arrived hardly over a month since his signing. Sure, he promised an album was on the way quickly, but we scarcely could have imagined.

This leaves us with one strong, refreshing impression: that I Died for This!? was essentially created in the same bubble as Snubnose, prior to Grip’s big announcement. This potentially has its drawbacks – the lack of major producers or features (aside from the hometeam, present in Eminem and Royce da 5’9”) – but primarily it speaks to a level of freedom and organic creation scarcely heard on a label of this size, let alone from a relatively unknown artist’s debut.

To be sure, I Died for This!? possesses the same vision and restless creativity of its predecessor, that’s about where any similarities with Snubnose end. Alright, true, Big Rube appears on both, but while Grip’s earlier statement wore its influences proudly on its sleeve (Goodie Mob and Kendrick, by turns), here, he’s largely determined to tear away at anything not entirely his own. “Compare me to who!?” he all but snarls on eerily aggressive lead single “Gutter”, and although he does adopt a bit of a Kendrick flow on “IDFT!?”, this is doubtlessly his most idiosyncratic work to date. Where Snubnose was focused, I Died For This!? is sprawling, where the former possessed a soulful Southern warmth in spite of its weighty concept, this follow-up is harsh, a gaping maw of Grip’s aspirations, fears, and failures. It digs at his shortcomings with unrepentant resolve.

It can be daunting, even feel impenetrable. In a genre that tends to lean on immediate gratification, it’s that rare album that prefers to reveal itself over time, unfolding all the more for a patient, attentive listener. The meaning of the title is one up for endless debate: considering the finale of Snubnose, it could be picking up where that album left off, but it’s most clearly a commentary on the endless search for fame.

Indeed, the entire album is framed as something of a manic stage show, complete with separate acts (not to mention pointed punctuation after most tracks). Indeed, Grip points to both Sgt. Pepper’s and Pet Sounds as major inspirations. It begins with a mockingly formal theatre introduction, “Enter Stage Right”, and from there it lurches right into action, with Grip attacking “And the Eulogy Read!?” with a punchy, pointed technique, reflecting on his gradual rise in the third person, recalling a million dollar label deal that fell through. Then, it all suddenly falls away with Wiley from Atlanta entering with mournful singing: “I would die for you,” and it’s clear just what he means: music and his dreams, one and the same. 

From there, he immediately revolves around to more universal concerns. “Hands Up!” is a twisted mixture of his calling to an audience and fear of police violence: “Put ya hands up, like a cop said it / … and wave ’em side to side like you just don’t care: cops still gon’ shoot us.”

Throughout I Died for This!?, Grip maintains a defiant disinterest in nearly anything resembling an earworm. While his prior work often delved into warm, sun-drenched hooks, his latest is practically hostile. With sinister, gnawing beats and verses that hardly let up song to song, there’s no breathing room here: it can feel akin to gasping for air with the surface of the pool just out of reach.

Verbally, the album often feels like a trip through a frenzied mind, crowded with too many thoughts to focus, dashing between street level views, hopes for (and distrust of) fame, and the more starkly personal. The production matches his paranoia and elation: “Momma Told Me!” features a backdrop that sounds like mindless babble, while the back half of “Placebo” complements Grip and Royce’s back and forth with a truly bizarre mixture of swirls and clicks.

A major theme on I Died for This!? is Grip’s questioning of the journey to achieve notoriety in music, the desperation of trying to make it, what you sacrifice – and miss – to get there. And, above all, questions whether it’s all worth it. “A Soldier’s Story?” finds him musing on almost giving up on hip hop as a means to survive, right before meeting Marshall Mathers and signing with one his idols. Eminem himself provides the album’s big guest appearance on “Walkthrough!”, and also speaks to this question; the label boss playing the fatigued veteran to Grip’s youthful hunger: “You want me to reach a fuckin’ bar that does not exist / no pun intended / but Grip hold on to this moment / because soon as you reach the top they’re gonna want you to fall from it.”

I Died For This!? barrels towards a more intimate conclusion in its final stretch – one that gives pause. “ConMan” finds Grip reflective, coming to an understanding as to just why a relationship came to a close. Then, as in fear of getting too close to his own core, the album jerks back to hunger with “Greenwood Freestyle”, only to implode into feelings once again with “At What Cost?”, perhaps his most passionate peak: “They act like I just started rappin’ yesterday / fact of the matter is, you n***as just started pressin’ play / I met a man whose pupils were dollar signs … ‘but here’s the catch: every single rhyme you jot is mine. / Not a problem? Fine, just sign on this dotted line’.” 

Off the back of that expulsion, things give way to soulful, touching, driven by an insistent, rotating drum pattern, “Patterns?”. This gives him space to reflect on his own hopes of getting rich, his failings on the way to that goal, and, ultimately, comes to the conclusion that his children are the most important aspect of his life.

It would have been easy, all too easy, to end the album on this heartfelt note, but Grip yanks left yet again, dragging us into “Pennies…Exit Stage Left!?”. The closer finds him linking up with fellow Atlanta rappers in longtime ally Kaynellz and Kenny Mason snapping right for the jugular in an impassioned rant against the limits of fame and the reality of just how little a rapper can receive when leading the game. 

No sooner have the trio ceased their snarling that I Died for This!? comes to a close: to the sound of enamored, thunderous clapping that reaches a fever pitch before cutting to silence. It feels even more biting than the faux grand introduction: when you’ve given everything away to reach this moment, what does all that applause even mean? It’s an album of far more questions than answers, just as it’s intended to be. It will leave you discomforted; uncertain, and as his first major statement, it couldn’t imply more promise.