I can’t really imagine a rap environment without The Clipse. But it almost happened. Malice and Pusha T, the brothers Thornton, were casualties of having an unwavering creative vision in desperate economic times. However, their perseverance makes them refuse to stop rapping, performing and hustling towards success until, well, the casket drops on their lives. The boys responsible for “Grindin’,” “Wamp Wamp,” and some of the most original portraits of urban landscapes in recent memory haven’t released an album since 2006 not because they haven’t wanted to, but because they haven’t had the label to do so. Signed to Pharrell Williams’ Star Trak imprint, when Arista was dissolved into Jive Records, Star Trak went to Jive, and, well, needless to stay that gritty tales of urban blight and witty recountings of daily minutiae were tabled, while less potentially offensive pop acts were pushed. Now, in 2009, the Clipse are on Columbia Records, and have released Til the Casket Drops, a bitter, angry and surprisingly reflective release that shows the Clipse as battle tested but industry worn, throwing it all out on the line in the desire for success. And that’s where the problem is. Part of the Clipse’s initial success on record can be attributed to the fact that they frankly seemed calmer and more assured on their previous releases. They were on the way to success, a calm trek buoyed by the support of Star Trak. Now, the Clipse are hungry and demanding, a new look that succeeds on lyrical content, but with an unfamiliar production style to the group, is not quite what it needs to be.
For the unfamiliar, The Neptunes aren’t the sole producers of record on Clipse albums anymore. The work has been delegated, as Sean C and LV, The Hitmen, of Diddy fame, alongside relative new jack DJ Khalil join in on the fun. DJ Khalil may be the biggest fan of the Neptunes’ production style ever, as for “Kinda Like A Big Deal,” those hollow drum patterns and loops and racing synths make the track sound like something directly from the Clipse’s past, and Malice and Pusha and guest Kanye West all respond in kind, lyrical giants performing like beasts on the exemplary production. Khalil’s “Footsteps” pleases as well, as I’d much rather hear the Clipse discuss consigning kilos of cocaine and flashing pistols over low key banger beats than pretty much anything else. Sean C and LV succeed in creating non Southern fried boom bap meant for instantaneous radio success, and succeed with the gigantic sounding album opener “Freedom,” but on “Never Will It Stop,” what sounds like a Kanye West throwaway track is hampered further by hollow sounding, meaningless plaudits being thrown around by Malice and Pusha. The opener, “Freedom” is incredible, as it discusses the trails and tribulations of the group over the past three years, and is as emotive as it is lyrically superior.
The Clipse are hungry and demanding, a new look that succeeds on lyrical content, but with an unfamiliar production style to the group, is not quite what it needs to be.
This album succeeds when it’s The Clipse and guest Cam’ron “outside Popeyes eatin’ chicken and fries” on “Back By Popular Demand,” as the former Dipset Capo feels completely at home on the Neptunes’ production. That hook, coincidentally shows that the Clipse have lost absolutely nothing lyrically over their hiatus, and are as potent as ever in creating exact urban moments that any urban dweller can associate with. Album closer “Life Change” with Kenna is a pleasant surprise not just for Kenna’s involvement, but because the Neptunes’ production here really allows for the heartfelt notions regarding the careers of Pusha and Malice to shine through. These men would give their souls for hip hop, and clearly have. The laid back radio jam “I’m Good” is totally expected, and very reminiscent of NERD’s “Loungin'” or Jay-Z’s “Change Clothes,” two “champagne rap” favorites that really expanded the Neptunes’ production style. “All Eyes on Me,” the club number really isn’t the Clipse’s forte, but they soldier through, as discussions of their Miami, South Beach party lifestyle feel highly incongrouous with previous album topics and their most notable and appreciated qualities as emcees.
Overall, it’s great to have the Clipse back. However, their situation has left them seemingly jumbled and confused and truly unable to find a proper creative direction. The pinpoint reflection, humor, drug talk and crime content is still here, but there’s some emotional despondence that the Virginia Beach bad boys obviously have attempted to work through on record, with mixed results. As well, adding an attempt at being the very thing they resisted, a pop friendly radio act, was maybe not their best idea. Given their particular situation, take what you wanted to hear, and forget what you didn’t, as it probably will not make a return for the next release. The Clipse are still emperors, they’re just fitting into new clothes.