Grip understands the constraints of independent art. The Georgia-born rapper spent the second half of the 2010s using a ruthlessly technical and narrative style to bring his solid Decatur upbringing to life. But, while small group projects like the one in 2017 Porch and 2019 Snub nose Critically acclaimed, he worked as a taxi driver just to make ends meet. His woes grew as steadily as his profile: his first chance to tour nationally in 2020 was thwarted by the pandemic and labels, which had started to regularly blow up his line, suddenly felt cold. In his eyes, Grip had given the game everything except his life and had received very little in return.
Grip’s success story last year brought him one step closer to stardom. He appeared on the radar of Eminem, who soon signed him to Shady Records, and got to work making his studio debut. Even after signing with an artist whose videos he had watched several times as a child, he still had in mind the push-and-pull of the artist-consumer relationship he had experienced in his early days. This relationship is the basis of his debut on the label. I died for this!? —An attempt to analyze the pain and suffering that accompany the execution of pain and suffering. It’s a solid concept worth exploring, especially in the context of rap, and its best moments flesh out Grip’s story while forcing the listener to confront their role by consuming it as #content. Overall, however, the album’s stylistic changes are too heavy to hold the idea throughout.
Grip’s versatility has been its calling card from the start. Give it any type of beat – soulful, sample driven, raucous trunk – and it’ll catch a flow and helm on it. His shorter projects, like his 2020 EP Proboscedia, tend to highlight his ability to flex without a roadmap and rap for pure sport. His longer, more conceptual projects lean more towards the more personal, their focus requiring a more severe sense of direction. I died for this !? is easily Grip’s most ambitious company, and when the vision comes to fruition the stakes seem deadly high.
On the climax of the middle of the album “A Soldier’s Story?” Grip recounts his rise through the rap game through the eyes of an active duty soldier. He sifts through the psychedelic guitars and drums of producers Beat Butcha and Willy Will Yanez to write his journey through nervous breakdowns while waiting to receive the life-changing phone call from Eminem. Memories like these and the ones that fuel tracks like “And the Eulogy Read !? and “At what price?” feel thorny but accessible, like heirlooms locked in the closet that must be opened with care. Grip is not the first rapper whose passions have eaten away at his well-being, but the feeling of anxiety that runs through him I died for this !? is palpable.
Longtime executive producer and collaborator Tu! helps Grip organize the crossing paths in his mind. The rhythms, whether boom-bap (“Hands Up!”), Trap (“Momma Told Me”), or something calmer (“Patterns?”) Grip’s raps. Piano and organ amidst the cacophony of “Momma Told Me” repaint Dekalb County with a gothic texture. Conversely, the jazzy vibe that producer Latrell James brings to “At What Cost” amplifies Grip’s struggle with his ambition to keep rapping.
The seams only start to show when the album starts to bite more than it can chew. At 17 tracks, the length of the album does not favor its sequencing. The tonal boost that accompanies a hoarse song like “Glenwood Freestyle!” with the very intimate “Cost” is made for emphasis but also undermines the emotional power of both songs. Most tracks with sung melodies, including the back half of “And The Eulogy Read !? and the entire “JDDTTINT! Are pretty but serve little purpose in the album’s otherwise airtight setting. The album too often leaves its own atmosphere in the air, which ends up diverting attention from the story to its center.
But when Grip and the company lock up, I died for this !? is urgent and exciting. It’s daring to turn your major debut, an introduction to a whole new fan base, into something akin to a meta rap version of Michael Haneke. Funny games. But his versatility and hunger help Grip fit right into the label that signed Griselda and Westside Boogie. His energy has clearly reinvigorated his label boss, who has turned in his less cringey verse for years on “Walkthrough!” “I like to be motivated by the artists we sign and I also want to feel driven by their creativity,” Eminem recently told Complex. For now, Grip does the trick.
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