By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Injury Reserve Album Review
Updated: Dec 22, 2021
By the Time I Get to Phoenix is Injury Reserve’s second studio album with a runtime of 41 minutes and 14 seconds and was released on September 15, 2021. This album is clearly an abrupt departure from their earlier projects and comes with great significance. Injury Reserve is an experimental rap group from Tempe, Arizona, and consists of rappers Ritchie with a T and, the late, Stepa J. Groggs alongside producer Parker Corey.
My first time listening to this album I was thinking about how it related to Groggs’ early passing in June of 2020: By the Time I Get to Phoenix is nostalgic, dreamy, ambient and places the listener in an unparalleled atmosphere of confusion, tranquility, and overwhelming intensity all at once. However, in an interview with Anthony Fantano, Ritchie stated that the album was actually completed in 2019, about a year before Groggs’ death. The album was held up due to sampling issues, label concerns, and, eventually, both Groggs’ death and the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this same interview Ritchie also outright said, “This record already had tones of things we were already feeling because when this record came out my step pop passed away. That and what was happening environmentally and culturally and what was happening globally were the things that were inspiring what we were making in this record so when [Groggs passed the album still] felt appropriate to release.”
The first track on By the Time I Get to Phoenix is “Outside” which features distant, futuristic-sounding synths that instantly transport the listener to this eerie, dystopian, nostalgic wasteland that’s reminiscent of the album cover. Dot comes in on the intro as Ritchie slowly raps his way out of the overpowering beat, preaching that he’s ready to confront whatever is in his way: almost like he’s preparing for a spiritual journey. He rambles about, “walking through the valley of death,”
And that “there is no happy medium
That nothing is nothing”.
As Ritchie’s intensity continues to pick up and his booming voice finally overtakes the beat he raps, “I'm in your neck of the woods with dogs
Ready to bark on 'em, prowling,” ready to face this journey.
Ritchie keeps up the intensity until, eventually, the rapping stops and the listener is left with a psychedelic instrumental track with a surreal atmosphere that’s reminiscent of a Ken Kessey-esq acid-laced clubbing experience. Ritchie continues to groggily breathe on the mic as two distinct, nostalgic synths play comforting sounding tones, respectively. Behind these leading synths are epic, banging drums and an ever-intensifying distortion that resolves with Ritchie’s layered and autotuned breaths. “Outside” is a sincerely epic, deep, and intense beginning to an album and it’s a world of departure from Injury Reserve’s past albums but the growth between their freshman and sophomore studio albums has been absolutely striking.
“Superman That” is the second track on By the Time I Get to Phoenix and features both Groggs and Ritchie rapping on it. This track has a distinct dystopian, dizzying, and pop vibe to it: it’s so experimental and out of this world. Ritchy sings a catchy and melodic yet ugly and muddled chorus with a wacky rhythm under his voice and the song feels so intense and so in your face that it almost felt like I was experiencing the song live, at a venue.
Zelooperz is the only featured rapper on By the Time I Get to Phoenix and absolutely kills it on the third track, “SS San Francisco”. Zelooperz comes in with a vulnerable verse that I think really adds a lot to the album, “I can't eat no ground stuff, I like to toaster strudel it
[...] Know my body mad at me because it's goin' through it
Scared to have some kids because the world be goin' through it”.
In these three lines alone Zelooperz discusses his struggles with eating organic food rather than processed food and uses that as a reason to not have kids, “because the world be goin’ through it”. Yet the instrumental feels organic: almost crackly like a bonfire and towards the end, harmonic tones come into play. This juxtaposition seems to point towards the healing, restorative, and earthly power of music and artificial issues with labels, what’s ‘in’, and sample clearance while addressing environmental and economic concerns. Zelooperz and Injury Reserve just go off on this track.
“Footwork in a Forest Fire” is certainly reminiscent of older Injury Reserve projects such as a handful of the tracks from Floss. Groggs comes on the track and kills it. His verse instantaneously transfers into Ritchie’s verse with a sharp, almost knifelike, transition and their verses just bounce back and forth for the rest of the song while the intensity keeps increasing exponentially. “Footwork in a Forest Fire” ends with a horror movie sounding, rundown guitar, and what sounds like banging on a door. It’s hard, fucked up, and goes off---another instant banger.
“Ground Zero” and “Smoke Don’t Clear” are slappers of songs where Ritchie contemplates his identity, climate change, and where and how he fits into overarching systems.
Then, “Top Picks for You” hits the listener with dreamy vocals and a nostalgic instrumental. This track is like experimental rap meets spoken word meets vaporwave meets ambient music: it’s a masterpiece. The entire song just sounds like a revelation and, here, the listener can see Ritchie finally speaking directly about his Step Father’s death and the impact that it’s had on him.
He raps, “Look across the table, I see a lot more than what appears to be a shadow
He walks across the room, I see a lot more than seem to be patterns
I scan the room, I see bits and pieces of you scattered
It's those same patterns that gon' get us through the next chapter
Your blood runs through this home
And your habits through much after “
“Top Picks for You” simply feels like Ritchie has finally reached acceptance with his Step Father’s death and, thus, a tranquil epiphany.
“Wild Wild West” almost abruptly interrupts the dreamy daze that “Top Picks for You” puts the listener in with a glitchy soundcheck intro. This song reminded me of a 2019 era Injury Reserve off of their first studio, self-titled album with the glitchy instrumental and bars about 5-G and AI. It’s almost as if Ritchie found himself and fell back on his previous mindset between these two tracks.
“Postpostpartum” is the next song that plays on, By the Time I Get to Phoenix. Seeming to admit that the previous song was going back into his bullshit at the beginning of the track Ritchie raps, “I had my arms open, yeah,
Soak it all in
I was postpartum
But please, don't guard him
Pardon me for yawnin'
N****, we all in
I was just talkin' jargon”.
Looking reflectively Ritchie used to be all in, talkin’ jargon, and had his arms open. He still was ready and able to grow and learn. However, years in the music industry and the deaths of loved ones has closed his arms. He raps,
“All falls down to your feet
I had my arms to the sea but now they gotta close”
As Ritchie continues to reflect, “Knees” begins. Ritchie admits he’s at the top looking down, but there are still more stairs to climb. He raps,
“Nah, we ain't got the green like that
Oh, my signature don't match on that?
I did that when snapbacks came back
Lost in the tint, there was things I ain't rolling with
Things I ain't knowing yet, things I ain't growing in”
Ritchie is already fully grown: he can’t grow anymore. He’s already experienced postpartum and postpostpartum coming up in the rap game. Ritchie feels unsure of where or how to grow from here. He continues, “I don't think I'll grow no more
I don't think it'll snow no more
Don't feel it in my bones no more
My knees hurt 'cause I'm growin'
And that's a tough pill to swallow
'Cause I'm not, I'm not gettin' taller”
Groggs admits that alcohol and other vices are the primary triggers stopping him from growing as he raps,
“Shit, I can't even grow no more
Well, at least not vertically
But all these bottles that a n**** been killin'
Got my stomach a lil' bit lower than it's supposed to be, 'posed to be”
Comically, at the end of the song Groggs adds, “Well fuck it n****, at least my dreads grew”
At the end of the song, Ritchie finally realizes that he’s already all grown up. He’s learning that one of the toughest things he can do is accept where he is now: grown up and a successful rapper. He's made it.
My two cents is that Ritchie should consider transitioning into a teaching or mentoring role along with continuing to improve himself. With this, Ritchie will be able to influence and help young rappers grow, he'll be able to influence the overall rap game and public discourse, and become enabled to grow further by taking on the next natural step, teaching.
The final track on By the Time I Get to Phoenix is “Bye Storm”, which seems to be a homage to Groggs, a track that may have been created after his death. Throughout this album, there have been mentions of climate change and even the title and the album art certainly connotes forest fires and climate change. “Bye Storm” does seem to play along with that theme, however, I don’t think that a reflection on climate change is the primary message in this song (or the album, quite frankly). Groggs is not featured on this song and Ritchie literally raps, “Bye storm
I know, I know, I'll mourn
Yeah, won't show everything
The show must go on, the show must go
Man, show must go on, shit I don't know
It rains, it pours, but, damn, n****, it's really pourin”
He follows these powerful bars with, “I seen my anchors break down, I don't know how to hold that
There's only so much two arms can truly hold, man
Everybody got that one that keep the rest in orbit
But who gon' hold it down when that rock can't take no more, man?”
With mentions to the one that keeps the rest in orbit and the imagery of two arms (there are two remaining Injury Reserve members), I feel like Ritchie is directly mourning Grogg’s passing on “Bye Storm”. However, the ending to this album doesn’t feel tragic, it almost feels hopeful and gives the listener this refreshing, hopeful nostalgia with a distorted sample of Brian Eno’s “Here Come the Warm Jets” under the vocals.
With this song, the central message of the album is made clear. Everything will die: your friends, your family, the planet, and yourself. However, this perspective isn't defeatist: participating in the grieving process and eventually accepting death is vital to personal growth and an eventual tranquil existence.
In the aforementioned Fantano interview, Ritchie stresses that the context of the album is one of the primary reasons that he and Corey released the album. He said, “I think that if the album had a different context or even just sounded different it wouldn’t have came out. If it was like the last album it wouldn’t have came out. If it had Gravy n’ Biscuts on it it wouldn’t have came out. If it was Floss part II it wouldn’t have came out because that would have felt weird dropping a record like that after someone passed away, for us.”
All of the lyrics in this article were quoted from Genius