The Three Man Weave: Injury Reserve’s Innovative Arrival
With an Australian tour scheduled for next month, Arizona's most exciting rap trio breaks through on their debut album.
Record deals ain’t what they used to be.
The foremost example of this - or, at least, the most discussed - is Chance the Rapper, whose denial of music industry tradition redefined the relationship between artist and distribution; Academy and emcee. It showed the entrepreneurial potential of this new information age, in which music is instant and gratification immediate. It was held up as a shining example of artistic liberty, the craft unencumbered by corporate demands and executive oversight.
It came as a surprise, then, when Arizona rap trio Injury Reserve announced their signing to Lorna Vista, an independent label based out of Beverly Hills. “We had never seen that kind of genuine passion for what we were doing,” they wrote in a tweet. “When the person who broke your biggest idol” - that’s Kyambo ‘Hip Hop’ Joshua, who signed Kanye in 1998 - “wants to take you down that path, you don’t let that go to waste.” Eight months later and it’s clear they kept their word: Injury Reserve is a rare debut that finds new and exciting ways to explore an already storied dynamic.
Injury Reserve have never had a sound, per se. It’s more of an approach: a means of blending sharp humour, seething energy and sombre confessionals into the signature lyricism that runs alongside their ever-evolving palette. Live From The Dentist Office, the trio’s 2013 mixtape, introduced them as a jazz-rap trio with an abstract edge, hinged on subdued flair and strong hooks. Floss, their subsequent breakout tape, pushed the hooks further, miring them amongst harder beats and harsher verses. Drive It Like It’s Stolen, their third and final pre-debut effort, seemed another stylistic tack, fusing the jazz-rap sensibilities with the hard-hitting attitude. The tinkering intricacy of Ttktv met the fully furnished aggression of Oh Shit!!! on Boom (x3), brimming with equal parts charisma and disdain:
“And then we got the old heads going
What's up with the ghost-writing thing, my nigga? I don't get that
See, back in my day, you had to write and spit raps"
Isn't Ice Cube writing 6-4 a known fact?
They even put it in a movie, nigga, explain that…”
Ritchie’s verse offered a strong refutation of an all-too-common mantle, one substantiated by mythology and misunderstanding. There’s no rules in this game, no expectations or approaches that can limit their creative expression. This outright attack on a fickle audience sent a clear message: Injury Reserve are not here to save hip-hop. In fact, hip-hop doesn’t even need saving. The traditional ideas of excellence, usually narrow rehashings of well-worn boom bap sounds, aren’t conducive to their own development, and so they cast them off with the same deft bars that’d fostered the expectation.
Though it’s been more than a year-and-a-half since, Injury Reserve - their self-titled debut album - sits firmly in the wake of this refutation. It embraces the most transgressive elements of their previous records, distilling them into compelling curios such as Jawbreaker, a vicious satire of hypebeast fashion trends; and Rap Song Tutorial, an interlude that turns a by-the-numbers procedure into a tight refrain.
That’s to say nothing of single Jailbreak The Tesla, which plays out like the most unlikely Fast and Furious film. It builds on their previous Telsa references - chiefly, “buy a Tesla take it to West Coast Customs” from S On Ya Chest - further embracing the cutting edge by way of classic hip-hop bravado. It’s a subversive take that speaks to their greater mission as forward-thinking tastemakers, as Musk’s brand conjures images of environmental consciousness as well as technical innovation and corporate status.
Innovation is one thing Injury Reserve isn’t lacking. Parker’s inspired production plays host to a score of equally exciting newcomers, such as Rico Nasty, hot off her own Kenny Beats collaborative record; Aminé, one of the most enduring 2017 XXL Freshmen; Freddie Gibbs, the Gary gangster-turned-Madlib collaborator; and JPEGMAFIA, whose chaotic delivery is just as recognisable as his beautifully glitchy instrumentals. Their star turns add versatility and embrace their rich characters, but they largely steer clear of soul-bearing bars. Thankfully, that’s where the trio themselves break new ground, finding time amongst the irreverent and upbeat to deliver some of their most heart-wrenching bars.
The back end of the record finds Ritchie and Stepa revisiting the same introspective confessionals that defined 2017 single North Pole. On What A Year It’s Been, the pair explore the trials they’ve weathered in the time since, ranging from alcoholism to industry politics. “Liquor and depression is a bad combination,” spits Stepa, the candid understatement continuing the earnest dialogue with his loyal audience.
Best Spot In The House melds this introspection with narrative. Ritchie grapples with his behaviour in the wake of a friends’ death, previously invoked on North Pole, unravelling the complicated layers of grief that have taken hold since:
“Shit was juvenile, like how was I too cowardly to go to your fuckin' funeral
But still feel like rappin' about your death was fuckin' suitable?”
“That shit been eatin' at me for this past year,” he posits, no closer to an elusive solution. There’s something to be said for the way these bars humanize the cult heroes, doing away with the poetic in favour of the frank. The two emcees fold self-criticism into their work, sketching themselves as struggling people instead of forlorn victims. These things don’t happen to Ritchie and Stepa: they’re bringing them about, pushing and pulling against the forces that be. It’s rich, incisive storytelling. It’s hard not to empathize with these melancholically relatable bars: who should you be reaching out to today? Injury Reserve want you to send that message, because you just never know.
As album closer Three Man Weave - a uniquely jazzy postscript - winds down, Flava Flav’s distinctive voice breaks through the mix. It calls back to not only 1987’s “Terminator X Speaks With His Hands,” but to the invocations that have dotted the three decades since he coined that enduring phrase. Flav’s catchphrase punctuates their invocation of Lil B’s Base For Your Face, the Public Enemy-sampling collaboration featuring Phonte and Jean Grae, a hallmark moment in their personal musical evolutions. It’s heralded as a moment of realisation; a song that helps shape and redefine taste.
“When I was too pretentious for some Migos
Then Phonte made a song with Lil B, though…”
It speaks to a culture of reinvention, both personal and artistic. Injury Reserve are in flux, and they feel at home there. They’ve never been the kind of outfit to rest on their laurels or rehash their ideas, and something as innocuous as a Phonte-Lil B collab speaks to their transgressive approach.
From Public Enemy to Phonte, and Lil B to Injury Reserve, the spaces between disparate branches of hip-hop - and separate genres altogether - are slowly shrinking, and the kids who grew up on these musical collisions are behind the thrilling dialogue of once far-removed musical ideas. The boundaries are eroding, rendering labels all but useless. Hip-hop is more diverse than ever, embracing elements that no longer bear classification. It’s this boundless space in which Injury Reserve have made themselves one of hip-hop’s most indispensable chameleons, pushing envelopes by way of constantly challenging their own abilities.
Injury Reserve is a story. It’s about meeting your heroes, pushing your boundaries, embracing your tastes and chasing your dreams. It’s a testament to vision, character and conviction, the latter underwriting every exciting choice, from inspired production to unconventional flexes and sincere disclosures.
‘My biggest worries were missin' a free throw,” muses Ritchie, “now me, Groggs and P doin' the three-man weave, though…”
Injury Reserve's self-titled debut album is out now via Loma Vista/Caroline Australia. Catch them in Australia this June - dates and tickets HERE.
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