Friday, June 6, 2014

album review: 'clppng' by clipping

Well, I knew this day would come. I knew that as soon as I started covering hip-hop, and especially after I really quite liked the most recent release from Ratking, I'd have to dive into the noisy, eclectic, and inaccessible subgenre of noise hop. A very new genre, one inspired by the experimental fusion between noise rock and hardcore gangsta rap, it was one I was always tentative to approach. Because let's face it, while I do listen to some experimental and abrasive music, I do like some trappings of conventionality or at least recognizable song structures and melodies. And while I loved Swans' most recent record, I also know that I only really came to embrace the band in full when they started incorporating more melodic progressions into their music. And given that I wasn't really a huge fan of what I had heard from the output of acts like Death Grips, I was a little uneasy about looking up an act like Clipping, so I looked up their first album Midcity and...

Well, if I was looking for the perfect transitional act between traditional horrorcore gangsta rap and the paranoid noisy insanity of Death Grips, it would be Clipping - and yeah, I really dig it. The bizarre thing about Clipping is that once you get past the explosively jagged noise, there is undercurrents of melody and depth to these mixes and Daveed Diggs is a damn impressive spitter, although not the traditional sort of visceral MC that comes with this sort of experimental music. My issues with the act were issues of content and the MC himself - while I definitely like Diggs' flow and lyrical construction, and appreciated the moments where he seemed to be showing the unstable anarchy and bloody emptiness lurking beneath the trapping of gangsta rap, there were moments that his flow got a little less intense and his punchlines got a little corny. For the most part, however, it was noise rap that I surprisingly liked, and when I heard they had signed to Sub Pop Records, I was curious to see what would come out of it. Would they attempt even more mainstream accessibility - well, to the extent any noise rap is accessible - or would they double down on the weirdness?

Well, to some extent, I think they did both, because Clipping delivers a record that takes the ideas rooted behind Midcity and intensifies them into a visceral yet accessible release. And I would be lying if I didn't say I really enjoyed large chunks of this record on multiple levels - but at the same time, I'm not quite sure it holds together as tightly as it could when examined more closely. And while I do like this album a lot and will easily recommend it, I also see a fair bit of unrealized potential on this album that could have been crafted into something with even more power.

So let's start with Daveed Diggs himself, who continues to spit with a lot of intensity, variety in his flows, and a fair amount of charisma. With the more accessible instrumentation, Diggs sounds more comfortable than ever, and he's easily able to imitate the flows of the rappers he's mocking or satirizing. Now granted, that's not always a good thing, because on songs like 'Work Work', 'Tonight' and 'Dominos', he's imitating a very staccato style that I've never found all that flattering, especially considering Diggs can really spit with a lot of energy and passion. Granted, he has a valid reason for using these flows and on most of these tracks he drops into his traditional flow pretty quickly, but it's still not of a flow of which I'm fond. But really, that's nitpicking - for the most part, I really liked Diggs on these beats... although I can't really say the same for his guest rappers. Don't get me wrong, none of the features aren't bad, with King T fitting the best and Guce's verse being the least interesting for me, but to some extent none of them really blow me away in terms of creativity or do anything beyond exactly their necessary role in the song. Take Cocc Pistol Cree on 'Work Work' or Gangsta Boo on 'Tonight' - they play the 'love interest' in these songs and while they fit with the context and nuance of the tracks, I wasn't exactly blown away by either feature.

Fortunately, the instrumentation often does a lot to step up in terms of creativity and sound, taking some of the more fuzz-saturated lo-fi sounds of Midcity and sharpening the abrasion into something much tighter. And it's really here where the production shines, taking the clattering percussion and adding loads of texture, giving the beats real depth in the mix, and somehow managing to create melodies behind all of the sound. Take 'Body and Blood', which with the echoing percussion, splashing effects, and thin scratchiness, is easily one of the most propulsive and with the power drill sounds the most industrial hip-hop song on the album, and an easy favourite. Then there's 'Taking Off', which is pretty minimalist as Diggs kicks his flow into double and triple time, and then it's punctuated by a saxophone interlude that adds haunted depth to the song. Or take 'Tonight', which has a shimmering synth line that wouldn't sound out of place on DJ Mustard track, but the edges of the track creaks and crackles and makes it a lot more interesting that just your standard club banger. Hell, 'Get Up' takes the insufferably grating song of an alarm clock and manages to shift its tone and subtly tweak its depth in the mix to make it actually interesting. But if I were looking at instrumentation I liked the most, it'd probably be a toss-up between 'Body And Blood', 'Story 2' which might have one of the best slow and perfectly modulated crescendos in the synths I've heard this year, and 'Dominos', which has a jerky wobbling riff for the verses that seems to be on the verge of constant breakdown, but then the chorus comes in with a great lo-fi piano melody and children's choir that actually manages to rise above my usual aversion to that sort of cheap emotional manipulation.

Now granted, part of this has to do with the lyrics and themes, which are the other big selling point of this album. The lyrics are vivid, colourful, and incredibly descriptive, and their delivery is almost worth the album price along. But as I said, many of the themes are extensions of those on Midcity, taking traditional mainstream gangsta rap trappings and subverting them or exposing the real darkness beneath them with gleeful abandon. In terms of the darkness of the sound and aim of skewering mainstream hip-hop, Clipping shares a fair bit in common with the most recent album ...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin by The Roots, but there's absolutely zero morals in Clipping's presentation, just sick amusement. 'Body And Blood', for instance, is a ruthless inversion of traditionally male-dominated horrorcore cliches by presenting a female 'protagonist', so much to the point that if Nicki Minaj ever managed to get her shit together, I'd love to hear her remix herself into this track, she'd be a good fit. Or take 'Tonight', which takes the traditional club hookup track and reveals the sleazy undercurrent in it - and then almost revels in it. Or take 'Story 2', another narrative track that focuses on a former serial arsonist who comes to see karmic backlash as his house burns and his family dies. Or take 'Dominos', a song that might begin as framing the main character as a successful gangsta, but then flashes back to a schoolyard fight to reveal how very little has changed, just the age and the scale. All four of these songs show facets of the underlying theme of this album, which is the revelation of the dark and twisted underbelly in some hip-hop, frame it with all of the consequences... and then dive back into it anyway, because in their minds, the trap is still a trap so you might as well get something out of it.

And that underlying sense of futility is underscored in song after song. 'Work Work' has the narrator getting pulled over and him running through his options, but also the acknowledgement that none of it will help him in the end. 'Summertime' takes the traditional summer party jam and exposes the fact that gangsta rap still endorses the same violence, even in the summer. 'Dream' might be the slowest, most willfully abstract song on the record, but it shows how most of the people are willing to be caught up in the fantasy of gangsta and luxury rap when they don't see any ways out. And then there's 'Ends', which might be the most direct assault on gangsta rap cliches yet, attacking the hollow luxury, the hypocrisy, and the underlying insecurity in their hypermasculinity. This is powerful, big idea stuff - and I only wish the songwriting had gone for broke more often tackling this sort of material. For me, it makes songs like the depiction of a shootout in 'Inside Out' or the gangsta swagger in 'Work Work' and 'Or Die' or 'Summertime' as a little simplistic. Still solid enough tunes, let me stress this, and wordplay and flow redeems them, but Diggs is such a good storyteller and creative poet that I wish he pushed himself a little harder in this direction. Or, let's put it like this: if he wanted to create a whole album full of 'Story' songs, with the same intensity and nuance and detail, he'd have all of my money in a heartbeat.

As it is, this might be one of the most creative and depraved hip-hop albums you'll hear this year, and easily one of the best. Sure, it's nihilistic as all hell, but it switches up the tone, sound, and wordplay enough to constantly keep things interesting, and manages to produce a lot of solid, catchy, melody-driven hooks along the way. I won't say it's perfect - some of the more straightforward gangsta songs didn't really grip me in the same way - but for what they are, Clipping made some twisted music on this record and I really ended up enjoying it. For me, it's an 8/10 and a definite recommendation, especially if you're a fan of experimental hip-hop. Hell, even if you're not, you should still give Clipping a try - you might be surprised what you get.

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