If you keep your ear close to the ground of underground hip-hop, then Injury Reserve is a name you've likely heard in the last few years. With their 2015 smooth and cool jazz-rap mixtape 'Live From The Dentist Office' and 'Floss' the following year, the Arizona trio have arrived as one of the most promising acts in the game. The latter mixtape in particular saw the band take everything up a notch and really demonstrate their potential, with more varied production from Parker Corey that went from face-slapping warped bass or relaxing coral textures.
Across both mixtapes, frontmen Ritchie With A T and Stepha J. Groggs have been Everyman heroes, touching on everything from struggles with mental health and relationship problems, to financial stresses and trying to make it in the rap game. Whether they're feeling high or low, whether they come out swinging or come out singing, they're not giving in and finally on their self-titled debut album, it's really game time for the group.
'Koruna & Lime' kicks things off with all kinds of erratic textures, with Ritchie wailing over the ricochet of laser-like melodies before the song twirls into samples from tribal war chants. Meanwhile, you've got Groggs full of swagger, bragging about making any money at all from rapping and agreeing with their dedicated fans that Injury Reserve aren't getting enough love. The track ends with some rapid record-scratches that really send this bonkers tune into overdrive.
'Jawbreaker' is perhaps the most effectively nuanced track Injury Reserve have ever done. The foundation of this track is a playful xylophone sound and movement. On top of this you have Pro Teens offering a hook that'll stick like bubblegum, and Ritchie, Groggs and guest Rico Nasty commenting on modern fashion, race and wealth. Nasty is the stand-out though, sarcastically repeating words she's heard about how she's 'meant' to look, before stating that she'll do what she wants.
Even just amongst these initial tracks, it's clear there's a heightened air of experimentalism this time around for Injury Reserve, but perhaps the maddest moment comes with 'Jailbreak The Tesla'. The darting, shining, trickling riffs are accompanied by the sound of a car unlocking as Ritchie raps about online piracy and a desire to hack a Tesla. Amin adds more adrenaline with his own rapid verse. It's like a mission statement Injury Reserve will seize fame and fortune.
'Wax On' is where 'Injury Reserve' begins to take a darker turn. This song features tense strings while Ritchie obsessively, deeply repeats the 'Karate Kid' line "wax on, wax off" among other variations. Groggs delves into the struggles of balancing tour life with family life, but ultimately states he knows he's dedicated to this. Indiana hip-hop hero Freddie Gibbs makes an appearance and details some of his gritty life experiences with a confrontational air, solidifying this as hip-hop not for the faint of heart.
'What A Year It's Been' features minimal, droning sounds that perpetuate this darker vibe, Groggs fearlessly addressing his alcoholism and depression, but defiantly stating: "Or should I say the bottom? That's a place I'll never go". Ritchie proceeds to take the lead on this track, taking up the latter two-thirds as he venomously comes out all-guns-blazing about how he's proudly chasing his dream regardless of how unlikely anyone tells him it is. He's accompanied by cascading drums that feel like the roof is coming through from Ritchie's ablaze spirit.
'Best Spot In The House' is awash with smooth chords and travelling theremin notes while Ritchie delivers perhaps the most intense and brutally honest moment on the record; detailing when a fan tells them their music saved them. He admits he's not sure how to respond and that he's not entirely comfortable with it, knowing the darkness behind his inspiration for the songs. For instance, he comments about how he's rapped about his father, but didn't go to his funeral. However, in this bleak state of mind there's a truly touching moment in the lines: "when they credit myself, they discredit themselves, and the strength that they had, yeah, to better themselves".
'New Hawaii' has the most guests of any song on this record with DRAM, Tony Velour and Dylan Brady aiding Injury Reserve to forge a blissful, sentimental love letter of a track. There's themes of complicated relationships amongst tender, warm sunset clicks and percussion. Once again, Ritchie comes out with a heart-stopping moment where he speaks of his love and how even if there was technology to make their kids turn out anyway they want, he "wouldn't do that s**t, I love just what we have".
'Injury Reserve' ends on a nice, breezy note with 'Three Man Weave' which sees the trio returning to some jazz rap as they ponder on how much things have changed for them, both Ritchie and Groggs stating how their biggest worries used to be how good they were at basketball in high school. It's a little odd that the closer isn't as intense and climatic as the previous songs to mark a big finish, however it's just as good on this end of the spectrum.
It's hard to think of a box Injury Reserve haven't ticked for making great hip-hop tunes on this record. You've got true heart in the words and they're delivered with hunger and fire. There's forward-thinking production and impactful comradery with their friends that feature here. There are hyper songs, introspective songs, fun songs and heartbreaking songs. Ultimately, you've got a group with a goal and a vision and fighting for it tooth and nail. It'd be surprising if Injury Reserve don't blow up on the strength of these tracks, but even if that's not the case, they'll be the best kept secret you don't want to be in the dark about.