The best way to describe By the Time I Get to Phoenix is as a smoking room in a burning house. In their first album since their self-titled record in 2019, Injury Reserve deviates from their normal high energy rapping to create an album that twists that structure into a claustrophobic, intense expression of grief. It would be difficult to discuss this album without mentioning the loss of band mate Stepa J. Groggs. Groggs was one third of Injury Reserve since their founding in 2013. Expectedly, this loss has taken a toll on the group, and this can be felt in every aspect of this album. From the lyrics to production, By the Time I Get to Phoenix utilizes music’s capabilities to fully immerse the listener in the mental state of Injury Reserve’s members.
This is not the first time Injury Reserve has dealt with the ideas and repercussions of death. In the 2019 track, Best Spot in the House, members Ritchie with a T and Stepa J. Groggs take turns airing out their thoughts and grievances in the aftermath of the deaths of close friends. Whereas this track is a hip-hop record about death, By the Time I Get to Phoenix is full of tracks where the hip hop element is mutated to serve the album’s narrative. Typical hip hop instrumentals wane in and out of chaotic soundscapes that encapsulate the pain hopelessness felt by the Injury Reserve in the aftermath of a traumatic loss. The groups’ feelings on the matter permeate into every aspect of By the Time I get to Phoenix. The lyrics do not blatantly spell out the tragedy that has occurred, but through the production, performance, and solemn change of pace, Injury Reserve creates an atmosphere that is unlike anything the group has touched before. While Injury Reserve has typically been classified as “experimental” hip hop, the instrumentals have had the echoes of traditional hip-hop beats to perform over. In this regard, Injury Reserve’s experimentation has been closer to a JPEGMafia than a Black Midi. But with By the Time I Get to Phoenix, the instrumental seems to be fighting with itself. Standard hip hop beats sound like they are trying to escape a chaotic musical landscape, as if some sort of normalcy is being suppressed in the wake of a traumatic event. This departure from their traditional musicality emphasizes the grief that is being felt by the group. Injury Reserve fully uses music as a medium to express their emotions with creative, experimental, and innovative soundscapes.
The standout track of the album is “Top Picks for You”. Literally, “Top Picks for You” is a personal, relatable take on how modern life affects everyday relationships and events. Ritchie with a T sings about how media algorithms continue to cater to someone’s taste even after they have passed on. The deeply impersonal technology continues to function in complete ignorance of the events of the real world to promote consumption. Despite this, the complex algorithms, created to maximize content consumption, manages to preserve the essence of a person even after they’re gone, as if nothing had ever happened. In the modern world, someone can be immortalized through the consumption that defines them. “Top Picks for You” shows how after someone’s passing, those affected will see figments of their close ones in everything. This manifests in a program that was designed to dissect someone’s consumption preserving what they enjoyed as a sort of capsule of that personality, even after they have passed on.
Altogether, By the Time I Get to Phoenix constructs a vivid picture of how the death of a close one can affect those around them. This album portrays this dismay not only in harrowing lyrics, but also in innovative production that draws the listener in to feel what the group is feeling. The emotions felt by the group permeates into every aspect of this album, creating an all-encompassing experience that shows the best that this art form has to offer.