On Their Debut Album, Arizona's Injury Reserve Brave New Terrain

The album cover for Injury Reserve
The album cover for Injury Reserve Loma Vista Recordings
“What a year it’s been.”

This statement, exhaled with conviction, might just be the best logline in the 40-minute runtime of Injury Reserve's self-titled debut LP. The Arizona rap trio are in the big leagues now, having dropped their first album on Loma Vista Recordings, and it’s evident on this track that they are yearning desperately to let their work shine to its utmost. In this, they largely succeed, showing themselves to be a band bent on growth and evolution.

The Injury Reserve cover art recalls Kanye West’s 2018 release Ye. With snow-capped hills, a grassy field, and an infamous laser-green grammatical nightmare, West welcomed us to the magical wilderness of his Wyoming. In similar fashion, emcees Ritchie With a T and Stepa J. Groggs, and producer Parker Corey hunker down in the grass with purple mountains and a green laser beam behind, welcoming us to their no man’s land. Beyond simple comparisons, it’s evident that West’s back catalog has long given a template to Injury Reserve’s approach, in that the work put into the art is often more interesting than the art itself. A perfect assembly is rarely the most fascinating product — what’s more captivating is a no-holds-barred onslaught of ideas, because odds are, if you throw enough at the wall, some (maybe even most) will stick.

Right off the bat, Corey throws his weirdest samples to date at the listener. Ritchie, voice pitched up, down, and all around, beckons us in, and after 40 seconds of anticipation, Groggs drops in over the dirtiest, trunk-rattling bass you’ve ever heard him on. This moment, if not a single other on the record, should resonate with every IR fan. The only notable Phoenix hip-hop act of the last decade has arrived on the worldwide scene with glossed-up, expensive, unquestionably professional finesse. And with its funhouse-mirror, Corey-directed video and A-Trak record scratch guest spot, “Koruna & Lime” is a two-and-a-half minute reintroduction to the three-man weave of your nightmares.

“Jawbreaker” is up next, the single that kicked off this entire new era for our trio. With a striking, runway-oriented video and a bloodthirsty Rico Nasty feature, the band’s return was an instant classic. But upon repeat listens, it reveals so much more about this next chapter for the group. Ritchie’s “zipper on the side” fashion critiques have refined. Groggs’s punchy bars are on new levels of unhinged genius. Parker’s production has moved into total post-pop territory, with the track’s only bass-heavy moment acting as a sort of tongue-in-cheek hypebeast appeasement (with blown-out, clipping quality to boot). This is a new place for the group's listeners, but it’s also a new place for the band. It’s newness all around, and “Jawbreaker” makes that notion seem like it has power.

Making good on “spazz rap” promises of old on "GTFU," IR brings an explosive JPEGMAFIA up to bat next before Cakes da Killa drops in. It’s a jarring, almost alienating turn, spending almost a full minute on guest players before Ritchie matches energy pound-for-pound on a furious verse of his own. With guest spots on past records, Injury Reserve have never felt absent from the frame. But here, they step out to make room for a curated vision where notable supporting players demand our focus.

Here, Injury Reserve makes a decisive request from their listeners. This is no longer background music, to put on at parties and keep the vibe right underneath clinking bottles and conversation. They want you to consider intention (“GTFU”), process (“Rap Song Tutorial”), motivation (“What a Year It’s Been”), and alienation (“Best Spot In The House”). They want to welcome you fully into the room with them, even if that means discomfort or even disappointment. This is brave, particularly on songs like "Jawbreaker," because Injury Reserve know their audience — by and large, young, opinionated worshipers at the throne of streetwear and hip-hop culture, where so often the hype supersedes the object of affection.

For a group like them to subvert this anticipation, to throw new voices at the listener again and again, is to push against the grain, and push they will. Rico’s verse on “Jawbreaker” doesn’t happen until multiple Pro Teens chorus refrains have orbited. On “New Hawaii,” Tony Velour takes precedence over D.R.A.M. Fellow AZ rapper Lil QWERTY’s spotlight is a track of his own, “Kodi Fire Stick,” presented here on “QWERTY Interlude” in the form of a faux-skipping CD skit leading into “Jailbreak the Tesla."

Aminé appears on “Jailbreak” after IR guested on his own 2018 summer banger “Campfire.” In the fantastic video for that track, perhaps Corey's best directorial effort yet, the gang rides around with the falcon doors up causing all kinds of mayhem. Aminé and Ritchie rock bobbed wigs months before Tyler, the Creator and Shlohmo would try the look on their respective new records. The hard editing of the video emulates Corey’s SOPHIE-esque beat in brilliant form. Somehow, the group have beaten all odds and made a track even more addictive than their own “All This Money.” While an album of all crowd-pleasers isn’t necessarily an interesting goal for them by now, knowing they can turn it on at will is a daunting flex.

The hardest verse on Injury Reserve comes from Freddie Gibbs, and makes “Wax On” the real Mr. Miyagi moment for the group's debut LP. Gibbs has worked tirelessly over the past decade to define his sound as his own. On his 2015 track “McDuck,” he samples an old interview he gave to Snoop Dogg about coming from Gary, Indiana, a place with no history for him to cling to. Coming from a rap wasteland themselves, Gibbs and the group are birds of a feather.

In the coming years, Injury Reserve will have to walk the delicate balance between isolationism and inclusion, lest their need to curate overwhelm their ability to define themselves. In the meantime, they're young and in the prime of their creative exploration. With each new fascination will come bangers that bend our brains and ears in wild new directions. Like Gibbs and Ye before them, it will take a lot of exploration and self-discovery to find footing. And as a fan, I am so glad that Injury Reserve aren’t settling into a comfort zone after the success of their early mixtapes. Rather, they are going bigger, wilder, off the rails, into the unknown, and we get to see this odyssey happen in real time.

So please, get your jaw up off the floor and buckle in. Injury Reserve are just getting started.
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