By the Time I Get to Phoenix
Injury Reserve · September 15, 2021
Injury Reserve was never a typical rap group. Founding member Stepa J. Groggs was 28 when the group released their debut mixtape Live From the Dentist Office in 2015, having met fellow emcee Ritchie Wit a T at a Footlocker in middle school. The group proudly represents Phoenix, Arizona, typically not a nationally recognized hub of hip hop talent. Their breakthrough came in 2019 when they released their self-titled debut album with the backing of Loma Vista records, following two highly acclaimed independent mixtapes which established the trio’s reputation for eccentric, humorous lyrics and bombastic, Kanye-esque beats from producer Parker Corey.
In June 2020, Groggs passed away at the age of 32, leaving a young daughter behind, the group announced on social media. It was a tragedy for fans of the group’s music but especially Groggs’ friends and family, including his two bandmates. Ritchie and Corey promoted a GoFundMe for Groggs’ family in the immediate aftermath, and remained mostly silent for the remainder of 2020, leaving the question of any future Injury Reserve music unanswered.
In August 2021, the group released a statement announcing a lead single for an album they had begun while touring two years prior. The accompanying track “Knees” introduced an entirely new sound for a group which had built their name through a mix of hardcore and conscious rap music; “Knees” is a highly emotive track built around a pulsing sample from British post-rock band Black Midi. Though Groggs and Ritchie have always been stellar rappers, “Knees” is more of an experimental rock song than anything resembling hip hop. A strained chorus by Ritchie – “My knees hurt when I grow, and that’s a tough pill to swallow because I’m not getting taller” – surrounds slurred verses from both vocalists. Groggs comes in halfway through the five-minute track and adds on to the forlorn theme of getting older by touching on his battle with alcoholism, a frequent motif throughout his career with Injury Reserve: “Okay, this last one is my last one / Shit, probably said that about the last one / Probably gonna say that about the next two.”
The rest of By the Time I Get to Phoenix arrived midway through September, and within the first couple tracks, it’s evident that “Knees” was only a glimpse of Injury Reserve’s sonic direction. The album certainly draws on elements of experimental rap and glitch hop of years past; fans of instrumental hip hop artists like Flying Lotus and Slauson Malone may not be taken aback by the abrasive left turn Parker Corey takes on the album, but even so, the unconventional song structures, digitally altered vocals, and heavy use of electronic and post-rock samples create a blend of sounds that feels almost entirely groundbreaking. The opening track “Outside” is a six-minute display of Corey’s skills as a producer, flipping an obscure sample from ’70s Venezuelan electronic artist Angel Rada into a whirling instrumental where Ritchie briefly provides perhaps his most conventional “rapping” on the album, though his flow still feels more like a spoken word performance than a rap verse.
Following “Outside” is “Superman That,” the second and final promotional single released a week prior to the album’s release. Sampling “Athens, France” from Black Country, New Road’s debut album, the track is perhaps the glitchiest, most untamed beat on an album full of them. Songs such as this, as well as darker cuts like “Ground Zero” and “Smoke Don’t Clear” give the album a distinctly unsettling atmosphere, almost as if the world is crumbling around the listener and Injury Reserve is providing the perfect soundtrack.
Given the circumstances surrounding the album, it’s understandable why this album is Injury Reserve’s most nightmarish to date, though that doesn’t detract from the project’s obvious beauty. Groggs appears sparingly across the 11 tracks, including his somber contribution to “Knees” and an utterly ferocious appearance on “Footwork in a Forest Fire,” perhaps the most apocalyptic song on the album, which lyrically illustrates the angst involved in navigating contemporary social unrest: “Are you down to ride? Yeah, we down to ride / I said, we down to riot / Sorry mama, I try my best to no longer be polite” he raps over a rapid, percussive beat by Corey. Other songs handled exclusively by Ritchie and Corey are clear homages to Groggs; “Top Picks for You” is a crushing description of someone, presumably Groggs’ child, using Groggs’ old streaming accounts and watching the same content their father would have: “Grab the remote, pops up something you would’ve watched, I’m like ‘Classic’ / This some shit I woulda seen you watch and then just laughed at / Your patterns are still in place and your algorithm is still in action / Just working so that you can just jump right back in / But you ain’t jumping back.”
By the Time I Get to Phoenix is heartbreaking, beautiful, and in some ways, a triumph as Injury Reserve takes their art to a new high in spite of immense suffering. Though Ritchie and Parker may have more work to do together to develop their new sound, this could be a gorgeous, albeit premature end to Injury Reserve’s catalogue. For now, all three band members’ social media bios remain the same as they have for the past several years: “1/3 of Injury Reserve.”