Thursday, November 30, 2006
This record is not about cooking food.
Every review of Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury, which is the most consistently jaw-dropping major label album of the year, follows along similar lines. The review begins with a history recap: Virginia brothers Pusha T and Malice are old friends of the illustrious production team of The Neptunes, and together the two teams created Lord Willin', the most underrated/best hip-hop album of the decade. The success was short-lived, however, as the duo faced years of development hell at the hands of their hapless label Zomba. (Who knew that Britney Spears' and Bowling for Soup's reps would have trouble promoting cocaine anecdotes? [Listen to the first song that comes up on Bowling for Soup's page for a snapshot of the hell that is having that play a few times a day at your place of business.]) Partly in reaction to unhappiness with their deal, Clipse self-released two monumental mixtapes last year, which created just enough momentum to get their second full-length in stores. And it's fucking great.
Frequently, the second part of the review quotes Malice's concise punchlines and Pusha T's authoritatively froggy delivery in dextrous detail: "Wanna know the time?/Better clock us/Niggas bite the style from the shoes to the watches/We cloud hoppers, tailor suits like we mobstas/Break down keys into dimes and sell 'em like gobstoppers."
Then the review describes The Neptunes' approach to the album, often picking out specific songs and outlining the instrumentation Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo brought to complement Clipse's corner fables. Let me try this:
"Keys Open Doors" sounds like Christmas dying of lung cancer. Its warped choir is the sinister wave upon which flippant hand-bells cascade straight to your left-brain, only for the syncopated bass drum to defy all logic housed there.
If I were someone like T.I., who has been buying the Neptunes' tired, loungey keyboard struts, I would sue the producers after hearing the beats they horded for the Clipse. See, the problem with they-who-are-now-the-furthest-planet-from-the-sun is this man:
Pharrell "Bargain Sweatshirt" Williams
The solution, the compromise that makes them great, is this man:
Chad "t-shirt and jeans" Hugo
I wouldn't be surprised if Hugo and Williams didn't even speak to each other anymore, but what's clear is the influence of Hugo's dark hand on the boards of Hell Hath No Fury. Often when The Neptunes are mentioned, people just think of Pharrell and his fallen angel croon. But Hugo's subtlety is the element that balances Pharrell's tendency to revel in counter-rhythms (Gwen Stefani's "Wind It Up") or replicate the sound effects of an "Asteroids" game (Fam'lay's "Strung Out"). What Hugo does all over the Clipse songs is either corrupt Pharrell's phased-out basslines with almost childish accompaniment or underline Pharrell's accordion squeezes and piano string plucks with even more menacing backbeat. Regardless, he takes the Neptunes' production back to what used to make it the best: minimalism.
Here's where my review starts to divert from the norm. The next wrinkle in a Hell Hath No Fury review is apparently to apologize for its subject matter. Pace these excerpts:
"Anyone who dismisses Hell Hath No Fury as simply 'crack rap' is missing the point: The album is a full-spectrum view of an internal landscape metaphor-ized as a drug-dealer's epic tale."
-Julianne Shepherd, Pitchfork Media
"Leapfrogging over rap’s stereotypically one-dimensional hustler, Clipse proudly bare their scars without compromising their larger-than-life persona."
-Brendan Frederick, XXL
"The group clearly seems intent on valorizing a lifestyle that is beyond their worlds of drugs and rap while remaining rooted in them, and in turn, the group parodies their topics to the point of reaching audio pornography: a type of music that propagates true activities and actions, but is presented in a way that makes the listener know it is exacerbated and, consequently, makes it even more entertaining."
-Stephen J. Horowitz, Pop Matters
"This album isn't about cocaine per se; it's the aftershock of a coke sale-infused existence. The results spray everywhere, from the vacant spending spree of 'Dirty Money' to the terrifyingly earned braggadocio of 'Trill'. This is lifestyle assertion, not something as negligible and confined as drug music."
-Sean Fennessy, Pitchfork Media
The beauty of the Clipse's music is precisely that it is one-dimensional coke rap. With twisting allusions, truncated syntax, and righteous anger, the boys tell you how to buy, cook, process, and distribute cocaine, plus how to live with the fortune you accrue from such illicit activities. If you have a moral or political problem with bobbing your head to something that glorifies a drug that has ruined countless lives, that's your problem. To pretend as if the music is anything else, anything more, is doing it a disservice.
The bandana around the neck definitely holds the title for pointless accessory of the year. I'm almost sad to see 2006 go, but I release it with the hope that 2007 will bring fanny packs with it.
Allow me to explain: I'm a white person enamored of a culture that is predominantly black, and one of the pitfalls of that is having to defend rap music to people who have never even tried to understand it. One of the reasons I like hip-hop is conviction in the absence of irony, which could be its own essay, but another is rooted in people's sharpest criticisms of the genre: that it all sounds the same. E.g., "It's just people talking over repetitive music about drugs, getting money, and sexing up girls." To a degree, that critique is correct; a large majority of rap interpolates those select topics. To me, making memorable music within that paradigm is more difficult than having free range of subject matter.
Pusha T and Malice take those three topics, flavored by the usual stance of superiority, and lace them with more creativity and amoral élan than almost anyone else before them. Claiming that what they do is somehow more noble than that is undercutting the achievement they've actually realized. Hell Hath No Fury is not a coke rap record; it's the coke rap record.
In keeping with the drug-dealing theme, the first two are free:
Clipse- "Keys Open Doors"
Clipse- "Wamp Wamp (What It Do)"