Review: “By The Time I Get to Phoenix” Haunts Us

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Photo courtesy pitchfork.com

In 2019, the hip hop trio Injury Reserve were at the top of their game. After years of online buzz and two mixtapes, they released their self-titled debut album, which was acclaimed by both critics and their cult following of fans. With features from high-profile artists like Rico Nasty and Aminé, it seemed at the time like this could have finally been the group’s break into the mainstream. Sadly, that did not happen.

In June 2020, founding member Stepa J. Groggs died. One could be forgiven for assuming this meant the end of Injury Reserve. Instead, rapper Ritchie with a T and producer Parker Corey chose to complete the album the group had been working on at the time of Groggs’ death, and repurposed it as a tribute to their lost friend. The result is “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” an experimental hip hop album that is equal parts chaotic, beautiful, and heartrending.

In the weeks leading up to the album’s September 2021 release, there were several clues that Injury Reserve wanted to go in a more abstract direction. The lead single “Knees” is built around a looped and reverbed sample of a single guitar chord, starting and stopping with seemingly no time signature in mind. Shortly after, the group dropped “Superman That,” an even more confusing song that traded the minimalism of “Knees” with a cacophony of glitched-out samples and auto-tuned vocals.

Even then, I still didn’t expect what the album as a whole would sound like. The opening track “Outside” immediately throws away any expectations you might have had, opting for a beat that barely even feels like a beat. It’s a minimalistic soundscape of synths, over which Ritchie with a T delivers what sounds like a manic battle rap verse with no time signature. I went from being initially baffled by the song to loving it as a strange and unsettling opener for a strange and unsettling album.

The majority of the album is utterly disorienting. Even songs that have a strong, traditional rhythm, like the brooding “SS San Francisco,” deviate from traditional song structures or add in strange ambient sounds that make the songs feel otherworldly. The main feeling that is evoked by all of this, whether it was intended this way before Groggs’ death or not, is grief.

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While Groggs has songwriting credits on every song on the album, the exact level of his involvement in the project’s creation is unclear. His vocals only appear on five of the 11 tracks, leaving Ritchie with a T as the sole rapper in many songs. In fact, there are only two songs where Groggs was able to record a full solo verse.

The first, “Footwork in a Forest Fire,” sees Groggs feverishly delivering an apocalyptic verse about societal collapse, eventually leading to a chilling scream that gets abruptly cut off at the end.

The second, “Knees,” takes essentially the opposite approach. Groggs quietly sings over the song’s minimalistic beat about his struggles with alcoholism and fears of growing older. The verse is emotionally devastating to hear already with his world-weary delivery and self-destructive sentiment, but the pain is made greater by the knowledge that Groggs never would grow old.

Considering Groggs’ contributions, many of the songs were presumably written before anybody had any way of knowing what would happen to him. This means the themes of grief throughout it are mostly subtext, partially relying on the listener’s knowledge of Groggs’ death. But this subtext becomes explicit text on the album’s standout track, “Top Picks for You.”

On it, Ritchie with a T pens a verse describing himself seeing recommendations on apps that Groggs was still logged into, realizing that these apps’ algorithms are still functioning for a person who isn’t there anymore. The emotional weight of this song could be described, but I would rather just let its haunting final lyrics speak for themselves: “Your patterns are still in place and your algorithm is still in action/Just workin’ so that you can just jump right back in/But you ain’t jumpin’ back.”

By the Time I Get to Phoenix” is more than just an experimental album. It’s even more than just a tribute for a loved one. It’s a 40-minute portrait of grief that uses its sonic unpredictability to convey the unpredictability of loss. That’s why, despite how confusing it can be at times, it resonates on a deeply human level that words sometimes can’t describe.

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