I have something of a potential problem. I am currently hooked on a track far outside the paradigm of my usual musical tastes, my appetite for this tune insatiable. Assuming you have read the title of this… I suppose… article, you know that the song in question is Hacker by experimental hip-hop glitch electronic rock shitstorm trio, Death Grips.
My eyes were opened to this piece by an uncharacteristic delve into the internet’s music critiquing community. On the advice of a certain editor, (hey that’s me! -ed.) I visited the page of self-declared “internet’s busiest music nerd” Anthony Fantano. His video ‘Top 100 Songs of the 2010s’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnkw3tjc4ck) was naturally intriguing. To know the 100 best songs released over the course of the last decade is a bold claim. That’s a lot of music, and a very subjective measure. Certainly, many of the choices would not have made my list. All that is important here though, is that Hacker took pole position. The best song in the last 3,650 days.
This was the beginning of my descent. I listen to the song more times each day than I would care to count. You probably wouldn’t call it typical shower music, but it certainly works in that setting. Hell, it got played on my allegedly rock-based radio show. Twice.
Hence the focus of this article, the question I want to answer:
Why has this song carved its way into my psyche? Safe to say it’s not your standard catchier-than-plague radio bop.
One tool employed to hook listeners is… the hook. A term deviously conceived by marketing execs in the dark boardrooms of major labels with the aim of drilling a single line into the brains of every poor soul to so much as glance at a radio. Historically choral, and often titles, some of those that immediately spring to mind include ‘Woah, we’re halfway there / WO-AOH, liiivin on a prayer’ from Bon Jovi, or the effortlessly sassy ‘That don’t impress me much’ of Shania Twain’s similarly titled track.
In more modern times songs may even include multiple hooks, placed increasingly earlier in the track. I see this as most evidently emerging with teen heartthrobs One Direction. Not only do the employ ‘You don’t know you’re beautiful-uh-ul / That’s what makes you beau-ti-ful’ as a choral hook, but even opening riposte ‘You’re insecure / Don’t know what for’ has been perhaps even more effectively crammed into our minds, if meme-frequency is anything to go on.
These lyrical hooks are the main source of catchiness in Hacker. I leave every listening with the absolute certainty that MC Ride has a statistically significant chance of being in my area. Honestly, it is somewhat unnerving, especially when I’m in the shower. I certainly won’t forget it though, if only for my safety if nothing else.
Otherwise, Hacker is relatively hook light. Other lines are memorable, but nothing matches the continual I’M IN YOUR AREA of what most represents a chorus.
Musical themes are another common method of making tracks memorable. Guitar riffs have been a long-term mainstay of this approach. The Darkness’ I Believe in a Thing Called Love, Green Day’s American Idiot, The B-52s’ Rock Lobster, even One Direction’s What Makes You Beautiful has a recognisable guitar riff. While this has shifted increasingly to synth riffs, the concept holds.
Hacker makes no attempt at employing some form of recognisable riff. Arpeggiated synths bubble along, while harsh and dissonant chords are spread liberally towards choruses. None of this is particularly sing-along or memorable, a world apart from Seven Nation Army’s globally known riffery. If there is much percussion, it’s not memorable enough for me to recall it as I type this mid-stats-lecture.
Thematic lyricism is one of the most important ways to engage listeners in contemporary pop. Using my favourite example, What Makes You Beautiful has a continual theme of trying to show the subject that their self-perception does not match how others see them. The song is about self-love and confidence, like a lot of what you’ll hear on the radio. There’s also lots of songs about aspiring to fame and wealth for some reason.
Point being, most songs tend to pick a narrative and stick with it. Most songs tend to be accessible, and clear in their meaning. This is not so with Hacker.
While the lines ‘You come out your sh*t is gone’, ‘I’m in your area’ and ‘I know the first three numbers’ all have an understandable link to hacking, the rest seems to be a deluge of random imagery. While the good people at Genius Lyrics may be able to discern cohesive meaning from ‘Soon your crew will be serving sandwiches named after me, Vietnamese Style, fool please’ or ‘The table’s flipped, now we got all the coconuts b*tch’, I struggle to. Hell, comprehending the lyrics on early listens is nigh on impossible through the verses. This seems intentional, with the members of Death Grips refusing to explain the meaning of their songs, or even appear in interviews to explain anything about the project.
The final aspect I will evaluate is the production of Hacker, largely because I don’t know enough about music theory to go any deeper.
The production on Hacker is clean, in contrast to almost everything else about it. Most of the sounds used are in some way abrasive, rough, even ‘trashy’. Zach Hill and Andy Morin, who provide keys, drums, bass, and produce, obviously know what they’re doing. It would’ve been so easy to use a quick, messy mix and have Hacker sound like another shitpost screamo rap song from 2012, but they didn’t. Instead, production is crisp and exactingly measured. Just enough edge and mess has been maintained to keep the sound somewhat rough and decidedly not mainstream, but it’s not muddy or actually painful to hear. It’s vicious and precise. Worse production would sound like an utter mess, and any cleaner would be too commercial and glossy to maintain the feel of the song.
This is the biggest contributing factor to the song’s catchiness, I feel. The production ties everything together so well, assembling a vast number of chaotic elements into a soundscape rather than just a pile. It straddles a fine line between too radio and too harsh that just hits right, especially for anyone who enjoys music on both sides of the production spectrum.
In a world where so much music is increasingly commercialised and formulaic to guarantee maximum radio play and streaming success in accordance with Spotify and YouTube algorithms, Hacker is a balm for the soul. A balm made of venom, menace, and napalm, but a balm none the less. (Nape-balm. Sorry, me again! -ed.) It may not be the single best track of the decade just gone in your view or mine, but it is undoubtedly an important totem of standing against the system.
Music shouldn’t always be squeaky clean and ‘perfect’ – life certainly isn’t. At the very least, grit is more interesting and will broaden your views on music and the world. Hacker has certainly changed my approach to hip-hop and increasingly abrasive music, somehow attaching itself to my psyche despite (or perhaps because of) being so different to my usual listening. I hope that you take the chance to listen to this track and broaden your musical horizons. It’s certainly more interesting and enriching than sitting on radio 1 all day.