By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
How can you be an underdog with all that cash, and a player with so little push behind you? If it's true that critics go all slobbery for rap acts with a built-in internal conflict at play, then yeah, Clipse could be a critical darling. And maybe that's the most one could hope for when it comes to Hell Hath No Fury, a sophomore album so notoriously delayed and buried by label hijinx that GQ made the berserk move of calling it "the gangsta Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." The fallout from that gag has bloggers chortling about indie-crack MCs selling Bape-draped fantasies from The Wire to the Pitchfork/Chunklet hep-snot demographic, but we've already got one Dipset. Clipse fill a different niche, and it holds a lot more baggage than the typical weight-carrier who wants to define his place in the game 10 years post-Cuban Linx.
Like most coke MCs worth their status—Scarface, Biggie, Ghostface—Pusha T and Malice have developed personas that ward off the self-awareness of their own mortality with likable arrogance and euphoric flossing. (Their 2001 debut single, "The Funeral," was about how fucking amazing their memorial services were gonna be. Their label botched that record's promotion, too.) It's just that the boasts are so stratospheric in their excesses—Rolexes so jewel-studded they don't even tick and half the supercars from the Project Gotham Racing 3 roster in their alleged garages—that they give a certain DePalma-style unreality to the means: the cooking, the distribution, the elimination of various competitors. But aside from Hell Hath's threats, reaper-dodging, and Robin Leach laundry lists, there are the two crucial components that make Clipse what they are: guilt and humor.
While the church-confessional organ funk of opener "We Got It for Cheap" (which invokes the title of their two-part mixtape series) and the Bilal-hook R&B ballad closer "Nightmares" (where Pusha T evokes the Geto Boys' dealer-angst blueprint "Mind Playing Tricks on Me") bookend the CD with self-reproach and paranoia, it only sets the tenor if you're just halfway paying attention.
While the dope slinger's remorse returns a specific humanity to a genre that's been reduced to caricature and keeps depictions of the grind from straying into a TRL candy-sparkle glamour parade route, it's the punch lines that give the album its outsized character: "Open the Frigidaire, 25 to life in here/So much white you might think ya Holy Christ is near;" "And late models, I lean throttles/Roof back with the coupe black, playa think he need goggles;" "Float around in the greatest of Porsches/But like a chuckwagon 'cause I'm on 12 horses." Hearing these lines cut through the murder talk is like catching someone whistling through a graveyard, and when they push the limits of corniness ("I'm the era of the Juice Crew, don't let that dookie noose you/1 and 1 is 2, its just as simple as Blue's Clues") it falls into this weird Jack Nicholson-as-the-Joker turf that brings it back around to a demented menace. It doesn't hurt that their drawls, halfway to deadpan and prone to spitting verse like some people say "ahhhh, whatever," don't mark out the boundaries between gags and intimidation; it's all part of the same survival instinct.
That same looseness lives in the beats—maybe no rim shots, but the line has to be drawn somewhere. The Neptunes' instant-hook machine is put to bizarre use throughout Hell Hath, and there's so much left-field weirdness throughout the heart of the record—sluggish accordions on "I'm Sorry Ma," tinny keytar stammers on "Dirty Money," a chopped-up loop of the sound effect Hanna-Barbera used whenever Space Ghost turned invisible on "Mr. Me Too"—that it's tempting to guess that they caused a certain amount of release-date reluctance.
Odd as they are, though, the beats typically bang; Chad and Pharrell still have the same knack for the percussive that made the boom-click-clap stagger of "Grindin'" immortal. And their three best contributions to the record are surprisingly divergent: the minimalist "Ride Around Shining" rolls out harp glissandos that echo across what sounds like an 808 pumping through a vocoder, club bait "Wamp Wamp (What It Do)" rolls over chiming steel percussion and a rhythm that sounds like Japanese taiko drummers hitting barrels with wiffle ball bats, and "Trill" is the most evil-sounding thing the Neptunes have pulled off to date: Picture John Carpenter remixing the theme from The Warriors into horror-film stalker music.
Right now there's not a surefire way to project where this album's going to go—in a year filled with chart flops and bloated half-efforts, Hell Hath No Fury feels like it could be anything from a gold-in-24-months deal to a sleeper juggernaut that hangs around the top 20 until the snow melts. A 70-thou sold #14 Billboard debut isn't terrible for a record you couldn't find at the Block E Borders on the week of its release, but it's modest enough to spur jokes about the wrong kind of brick-moving. Still, at 50 minutes, with a dearth of skits and crossover stabs, it does sound like it was deliberately constructed to be a streamlined classic, and Williamsburg newjack jockriders notwithstanding, it'll sound like one after they move on to the next Hot Chip record. It took three and a half years for Hell Hath No Fury to come out; Lord knows how long it'll take to top it.