Clipse: Back with Vengeance

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Tower of Pisa, leaning / In that late-model something, searching for life's meaning

Maybe not all rappers care about this; maybe not even most. But Clipse seems to exist specifically for that moment where the first time you're hearing a verse you can't quite believe what you're hearing, where you close your eyes and squinch your face up and maybe pound your fist against your steering wheel or your desk the empty subway seat next to you. Any number of reasons exist why we haven't heard from this group at length since 2006's Hell Hath No Fury: they've been touring, they've been figuring out their label situation, they've been reeling from the overwhelming commercial failure of HHNF. But I'd prefer to think they've been hunched over notepads somewhere, figuring out just how many ways they can still figure out to say that they used to deal drugs, obsessively rewriting their lines over and over. The Lil Wayne model where you record ten songs in a night and leak them all the next morning doesn't work for these guys. Every line on their new mixtape, (deep breath) We Got It 4 Cheap, Volume 3: The Spirit of Competition (We Just Think We Better), is a product of intense work. Lyrically, this thing is so dense it's almost exhausting, and I'm going to need a while to fully process the whole thing; even on my sixth or so listen, half the stuff on the later tracks still sails over my head. But that magic face-squinch moment happens over and over again.

This is the first Clipse tape that isn't really a Clipse tape; Ab-Liva and Sandman, the two Philly rappers who make up the Re-Up Gang along with Clipse's Malice and Pusha T, fully deserve their equal billing. Both of them have been getting better with every new mixtape, and by now both of them (Liva in particular) rival Malice and Pusha for deadly verbal economy. These guys are all gifted writers doing their best to impress and outdo each other, and the result is a pretty great example of why rap group efforts can work better than solo stuff. For me, the defining moment here is "Scenario 2008," the track where everyone just goes nuts over a stomping old Swizz Beatz posse-cut track, everyone sneaking at least one face-squinch moment into his verse. Liva: "I was once told, nigga, ignorance is bliss / I was busy counting money, how ignorant is this?" Pusha: "I pull from the ghosts of dead greats / Ouija board flow, all you niggas is dead weight." Sandman: "Hit you, rip you so they can't fix you / So the pastor preach Scripture / Turn you to a mantelpiece fixture." Mal: "Like Pearl Jam, I kill all of my peers like Jeremy / And here I am with open arms like Journey." Granted, that last line is sort of labored and cheesy. But "I kill all of my peers like Jeremy"? That's just fucking hilarious.

As soon as the thing went up online, Noz wrote a piece about how the whole thing is pretty much about commercial disappointment and how that commercial disappointment might lead them back into the activities they've always rapped about. Maybe he's right. Hell Hath No Fury is final proof that critical love has absolutely zero influence on record sales,at least as rap is concerned: a platinum group selling 80,000 copies of its a sophomore album widely considered to be its masterpiece. Still, I think it's instructive that most of the lost-career lamentations come from one member of the group: Malice: the older of the brothers in Clipse and the one getting no solo-career buzz. Mal's regret is palpable all over this thing. On "Good Morning": "I can't wait for Skateboard to save me / My house in default, his house paisley / He's not at fault, no, not vaguely / He's on a yacht somewhere with Jay-Z." It's that "somewhere" that gets me, Mal realizing he's a pet project of an eccentric superproducer who just has other things going on in his life. Elsewhere: "Truth be told, I've been feeling different lately / Like fuck money and the dollar is the devil's baby." On that same track, Mal explicitly lashes out at both Pharrell and Jive CEO Barry Weiss for not being any help. Pharrell, for his part, never shows up for a guest-verse the way he did a few times on Vol. 2, so maybe that bridge is burned, a mixed blessing at best for these guys. Whenever Pusha mentions record sales, he does it to prove that he's more of a street threat these days now that he can't count on rap money anymore: "I guess I caught a brick according to Soundscan / The critical acclaim was that of a proud man / Prepare for the worst, that blood's on Jive's hands / So when the Fury dropped, so did 80,000 grams / Add that to my 80,000 fans." Pusha is still looking for ways to make himself look like a crack-dealer superhero; Mal is just depressed.

But so yeah, the drug-talk still dominates this thing, and it just amazes me that these guys are still finding new ways to talk about a limited topic that they should've run into the ground many times over by now. Like, for instance, here's Pusha: "Since yay tall, I was MJG with the eightball / A living legend, I play them keys like Ray Charles." How has no one ever claimed to be MJG with the eightball yet? Or here's Mal on not snitching: "The law don't understand our troop / We don't never say shit, we the Blue Man Group." This is punchline-heavy stuff, but all those punchlines are dense and immaculately constructed, and they come in a constant barrage, delivered in perfectly enunciated matter-of-fact voices that betray no humor. Liva seems to be going on a literary-reference kick lately, following up on the "make all of her twist like Dickens" line from HHNF; here he namechecks Mario Puzo and Othello and claims to be (I love this) "like Ishmael with fishscale." On "Re-Up Intro," Pusha's distorted shouting intro is such a pitch-perfect imitation of Diddy's distorted-shouting intros that I have to wonder whether it's intentional. On the same track, he has a few words for new apparent foe Lil Wayne: "Sorry, but I don't respect who you applauding / Little nigga flow, but his metaphors boring / Don't make me turn daddy's little girl to orphan / That would mean I'd have to kill Baby like abortion." But it's just a quick jab, and he never comes back to Wayne. As soon as it's done, he's on to other topics, like how much coke he sells.

Time will tell if Vol. 3 comes close to equalling Vol. 2, one of my favorite-ever mixtapes. (A while back, I called Vol. 2 the "greatest mixtape of all time" in this space and got justifiably savaged in the comments section as a result. But it's still good enough to encourage that sort of breathless overstatement.) God knows Vol. 3 isn't perfect. Everyone sounds a little hesitant over "Rainy Dayz," like they revere the original too much to go too nuts on it. One sung hook from Ab-Liva is one too many. And sure, the constant vivid and amoral coke-talk can start to feel a little demoralizing, especially when the group seems so defensive about it. (Check the skit where Pusha complains about a "tree-huggin'-ass bitch" telling him to rap about other stuff.) But the early part of this year has been a depressingly barren one for rap; too many more weeks like that and I would've had to resort to writing about the new Yak Ballz album or some shit. And so this mixtape feels like an oasis: four great writers reasserting their dominance after withstanding a devastating commercial blow, stealing great beats and making them their own. And hey, maybe this Wayne thing will turn into something.

Voice review: Zach Baron on Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury
Voice review: Nick Sylvester on the Clipse's We Got It 4 Cheap, Volume 2

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