Sometimes, it is life, not death, that is limiting. In life, we inadvertently place constraints around ourselves, as fear of death itself wields its vice grip around our necks every waking second – no matter how ready and accepting we are of our finality. But death escapes fear – escapes limitations. A little over a year since his passing, the voice of underground emcee Jordan Alexander Groggs, aka Stepa J Groggs, continues to inhale and exhale. On By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Injury Reserve‘s first record since Groggs’ death, the surviving duo are carrying on the rapper’s legacy, showing through impermanence and absence that he still has so much to offer.
When Groggs passed away last June, at the young age of 32, shockwaves were sent through the underground of hip-hop at large and, of course, through the hearts and minds of his two dear friends and bandmates, Ritchie with a T and Parker Corey. Given their shocking loss, it would have been understandable for what’s left of the Phoenix hip-hop group to have chosen never to make music again as Injury Reserve or, at the very least, never release this record to the public. Nonetheless, they’re admirably choosing to remain relentless and honoring toward their fallen comrade.
While their back catalog is defined by bar-heavy bangers and single-worthy moments, By The Time diverts from what has worked for Injury Reserve, and exists in a realm decidedly foreign to their rambunctious style and tendencies. There are no high-strung “Oh Shit” or “Gravy & Biscuits”-type haymakers here, but it does possess a daunting, unorthodox stance that jabs away at listeners with the outfit’s most obtuse and non-linear creations to date. Still, even with how extraterrestrial and chopped-and-screwed the Phoenix outfit’s sound has become, By The Time still pulsates with Groggs’ presence; one that transcends the apparent sentimentality and real-life circumstances from which this record was birthed.
Groggs is credited on every track — rightfully so, as most of this record was created before his passing — and the rapper is also still audibly current. The panic-struck mindfuck that is the album opener “Outside”, for example, sees Groggs offer garbled insight into what’s ailed him; “What’s the elephant in the room,” he asks, “let’s talk to him, c’mon / Let’s talk to him, don’t hide it.” And he doesn’t hide it, as on the following “Superman That”, Groggs repeats “I can feel it in my bones,” while, through Ritchie, admits there “Ain’t no savin’ me, ain’t no savin’ me or you.” On the apocalyptic “Footwork in a Forest Fire”, he can be heard further smothered by doubt, anxiety, and paranoia as socio-political and ecological demise torment his entire being: “A sign of the times / Time of the sign / Look to the sky / Look down below.” Though his voice is not included in “Smoke Don’t Clear”, the spirit of his startled warning bleeds into this equally infernal cut where his partner in anguish, Ritchie, reminds us that “it’s all uphill from there.”
The nature of Groggs’ desperate bearing is unwaveringly oppressive for the record’s majority, but the general malaise that he holds – and shares with Ritchie – climaxes during the album’s penultimate track (and lead single) “Knees”. Here, Groggs’ vanishing voice conveys haunting admission of futility within his lone verse; “Shit, I can’t even grow no more,” he admits, then follows it with the slightest bit of self-deprecating humor, “Well, at least not vertically.” But later in the track, he drives the frigidness of his words further inward, like a weaponized icepick, and delivers an exhaustion-colored blow that’ll reverberate through your bones long after listening: “Okay, this last one is my last one, shit / Probably said that about the last one / Probably gon’ say it about the next too.”
Groggs often engaged his battle with alcoholism for depressive and vulnerable lyrical turns in the past, and yet, “Knees” is undoubtedly the most heavy-hearted we’ve heard Injury Reserve. Needless to say, the outfit’s playful alchemy of sound, though less hip-hop in spirit this time around, remains wildly prominent and still drives forward their positions as purveyors of the genre’s future. Even with Groggs’ spirit still garishly felt, this iteration of Injury Reserve also shines as an envelope-pushing duo of their own, remaining steadfast in making music from another world.
Encapsulating the vibrant presence of death, Parker Corey pours out his soul behind the boards, concocting distorted spells of hyper pop and post-industrial conjurings. Meanwhile, Ritchie with a T, unleashing fragmented poetic flicks and staggeringly sparse stream-of-conscious lyricism, can be heard bravely and painstakingly picking up the pieces splintered by obvious trauma and grief throughout. But, while the duo are making pained grasps for light at the end of this chaos-filled tunnel, they’ve still made a record that will surely serve as a noise-blasted blueprint for future hip-hop acts to springboard from.
Aside from the overwhelming barrage of despondent noise that’ll likely repel those with a more traditional palette for hip-hop, the only flaw to note from By The Time is the brutal reality of Groggs’ physical absence. His rapped ferocity was such an integral component to Injury Reserve’s charm that fans will, naturally and understandably, be left yearning for some dumb fun bars and mind-numbing hooks. But, because Groggs was such a significant source for this boisterous edge, it’s easy to be forgiving toward this record. It simply sucks that Groggs is no longer here to command the mic with bravado, as he once did.
Many who decide to embark on this emotionally grueling endeavor will look to close the book, reckon with tragedy, or pine for some finite answer that makes sense of death for their comfort. The truth is, Injury Reserve are not trying to tie a ribbon on the aftermath of this adversity; they’re simply making it a point to see through a project that helps further Groggs’ legacy. By bringing what swirled in the rapper’s heart and mind to the forefront, one could argue that Groggs feels more alive than ever, at least while By The Time is on rotation. Though what is heard from Groggs on the record pins him in death’s proximity, the natural tendency to keep listeners at bay and filter what is running through his mind is non-existent — everything is laid out on the table for listeners to take in and mourn.
Injury Reserve could very well call it quits today, and everyone would be devastated. But there’d also be an understanding that, because they’ve released what is arguably their definitive record, they wouldn’t have any obligation to release anything else. Let’s face it: it’ll be damn near impossible for Injury Reserve to replicate anything of this nature ever again. Regardless, the group have introduced a storm of novel sounds to the world of hip-hop, which will undoubtedly prove its influence down the line. It’s also possible that the release of By The Time I Get To Phoenix could also be the start of a new journey for the project. Let’s hope this is not the last we hear from Injury Reserve, and that they can completely lean into their mind-boggling idea of hip-hop without hesitation in the future. Of course, it’ll be a sound without Groggs’ voice, but his spirit will very much breathe through Injury Reserve, unrestrained by the limitations of life itself.