Monday, September 12, 2016

album review: 'splendor & misery' by clipping.

There will be two sets of people who will see this review.

The first set are those who know what clipping. is, the experimental rap trio signed to Sub Pop who in 2014 dropped their debut which remains one of the best records of that year and featuring some of their best ever songs. A trio known in the underground for explosively distorted music, twisted samples, and the sheer mindbending wordplay of Daveed Diggs, I know why all of you are here. You know what clipping. is and the meticulous yet delirious intensity with which they approach their work, and how their newest concept album experiment makes all too much sense for an act that has a knack for storytelling...

But let's get brutally honest, you're not the set of people I'm worried about. I'm talking about you, the people who saw Hamilton - or more likely just got the soundtrack - and were entranced by Daveed Diggs' insane skills as a rapper, which won him a Grammy and Tony earlier this year. From there you might have heard that this guy had a group dropping an album this year and were curious to hear more - maybe it would be like Hamilton? So let me disabuse you all of some notions: this is not going to be like 'Hamilton'. The theater that Diggs was involved with before Hamilton was experimental, the stuff that would never land on Broadway in a million years, and clipping. is even further away from that, in production and content. And this record looked to be pushing in even weirder directions: heralded as a hip-hop space opera - of which I hoped was a lot more Deltron 3030 than Shabazz Palaces or Logic - this is an album that was looking to push its high concept to the limit. Of course, you'd expect that from a group where one member has a Ph.D with a dissertation on experimental music and who is influenced by Tim Hecker and Death Grips, but if all you know is that 'Daveed Diggs was in Hamilton', you might run screaming for the hills before giving this record its fair consideration. And hey, you'll be in fair company, there are plenty of critics who have dismissed this project rather than admit they don't get it. So if you're expecting something accessible or easy to take in, this is your change to clear off now, friendly warning.

Are they gone? Good, so let's dig into Splendor & Misery - does it live up to some high expectations?

Well.. okay, this review is going to be a little weird, because after a lot of listens through this project, I'm not even completely sure I get this album, because it is one hell of an experience. And one of the big reasons for that is I don't really have many direct comparison points to this work - this album is so far divorced even from what clipping. has previously released that it's really hard to add context, especially when you consider the incredibly broad pool of sci-fi references this album draws upon. And I'll be blunt: there's a part of me that thinks this record might be a little too wrapped in its own clever impenetrability for its own good, because there are ideas that only barely hold together, especially when it comes to the production. And yet... it does work, the sort of ambitious leap that is definitely not as accessible as midcity or CLPPNG but with such a defiantly unique aesthetic that was grounded in enough humanity to have real emotive power - and while it definitely demands attention to wedge yourself into the headspace, I think it's worth it.

But as such, there's no easy way to describe this record in my conventional style, so let me start with the 'narrative', as it is: it appears to be far in the future, and there's a revolt on a slave ship. Everyone dies except for one slave, who barely has enough context to understand the ship and systems that are beyond his control, but now he's alone and he must decide where to go in the vast universe, fully aware that he may never encounter another soul ever again. Oh, and the majority of the actual songs are from the perspective of the ship's computer, which seems to have an odd fascination with the escaped slave and his history that walks the weird balance between clinical and irrational, a sort of 'love' that only a machine could really produce. And as such, the instrumentation falls into two main categories: easily some of the most sterile, airless beats and glitch that clipping. has ever used, with touches of distorted synth and theremin because it's a space opera and of course there's going to be a theremin; and yet opposite it the sort of blues melodies that go back beyond the creation of the genre to the slave songs in the 1800s. It's a fusion of overlapping vocal melodies and tunes that are older than the past century of music... then combined with the interlocking mechanical sparks that seem desolate even for hard sci-fi.

And make no mistake, for the first half dozen times I listened through this project, the fusion is jarring. I get the Afrofuturist context for the juxtaposition and the stark historical parallels, but on a sonic level it sounds bizarre when you have rich soulful tones spilling from speakers warped by static and fuzz, the glitch that oddly seems a far stronger fit for Daveed Diggs' relentless flow... and yet I'd argue he's more melodic and theatrical on this record than he's ever been, leaping onto nearly a dozen different interweaving flows with the sort of writing that's so tightly written that it almost feels composed by computer. And of course that makes sense, given how most of these lines are supposedly being delivered by a computer - but that said, these are easily the most sparse and barren soundscapes that he's ever had to work with, and there's a part of me that wishes these songs could have a little more texture or melody. The only tunes we get on songs like 'All Black' everything are the incredibly thin squeal of glitch, a burbling chiptune, and a barren atmosphere that carries just enough of a tone to elevate the tension, and 'Wake Up' takes those tinny bubbles and plays them off of Doppler shards of cymbal, klaxons, and a rumbling gallop of rounded bass. Songs like 'True Believer' are a little more established, with ratcheting clanks, empty radio feedback, and a darker tone near the very back, where 'Break The Glass' sounds like the rending of airlocks against low groans that sound like something from a Hans Zimmer score. Then there's 'Baby Don't Sleep', which takes whirring gallops and hisses of static and fuses them into a beat that for a hook adds in a single blurred over ambient tone, and I have to wonder if the song would stick more in the brain if there was a little more to it. Take for instance 'Air Em Out', which takes these thin tinny fragments of synth against deeper echoes, mechanical whirs, and a stutter of percussion that sounds like a trap anthem written a thousand years in the future, and as such it's easily one of the most catchy. Then there's the closer 'A Better Place', which takes an incredibly thin organ that almost reminds me of one you'd hear a hockey arena but then adds layers of deeper bass and thicker textures that builds to an oddly triumphant moment. Of course, the most powerful song on this record is 'Story 5', which doesn't even need instrumentation - it's one of the most gorgeous and heartbreaking a capella tunes I've heard all year - I'm not sure if it matches 'Story 2', but it reinforces my belief that clipping. ever made a 'stories' compilation, it'd probably be the best thing they've ever done.

But that's just the sound of this record: now we have to get into content. And let me start by putting aside the technical gimmicks that clipping. uses here in their narrative - as much as I can appreciate that 'Interlude 02 (Numbers)' contains a code that you can later crack with a key word from 'Air Em Out' that looks to be a reference to previous clipping records, those are Easter eggs. They're cute and I do appreciate the references, but they also feel perfunctory on a record that is so tightly streamlined that they can feel a little out of place. Granted, that streamlining might be part of the larger problem: while I can appreciate there's not an inch of fat on this album - for a space opera it is ridiculously tight - it also completely eschews the sense of grandeur and scope you would normally come to expect from that sort of sci-fi. Even the most cold and clinical of space movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey - or conversely in progressive metal 01011001 by Ayreon - you normally get some grander swell.. but Splendor & Misery doesn't bother with it except for the very end - and yes, I'll come back to this. And yeah, that makes sense for a record from the perspective of an observing computer, with only two interludes spoken by our main protagonist, but that's another narrative element I'd question, because it further distances us from that human element, and that's from where the strongest pathos on this record comes. We get a lot of technological detail about what has happened and is happening to our main character, and very little of his internal response - which, on some level, does fit the high concept thematic narrative. To be blunt, clipping. isn't being subtle about the symbolic parallels between the escaped slave and modern black society, touching on adherence to personal rituals to stay sane in a cold uncaring universe, at the mercy of systems they can't control but still blame themselves for their condition, and a society around them that not only can't look away but seemed enamored with it. But as the album progresses the computer seems to want greater contact with that raw humanity that cuts through, urges him to break the glass and interact more deeply...

And this is where 'Story 5' comes in. The tale of a woman named Grace who faced a dark past with relentless optimism and yet when confronted with the possibility that everything she had built would come crashing down she'd smile and keep going... only to get killed in a random accident. And this tragedy is the anchor point of this record: in spite of everything she had done, what was it all worth when the uncaring universe ends her? And 'Baby Don't Sleep' only further emphasizes this - what use is a god to a non-believer in the vastness of space, all the further divorced from society at large... but staying in that system with no control is surrendering. And this is where we hit the thematic crux point of this album: when confronted with the emptiness and the futility of his own existence, our protagonist doesn't collapse into insanity like so many Lovecraftian heroes, but feels a tremendous force of liberation: when you recognize you're not the center of the universe, the only things that matter are what you chose to make matter - or, to put it another way, 'the meaning of life is to give life meaning'. And maybe that's why the ending of the record ends with the swell of organ, the chorus seeking to find a better place to be someone, and a well-placed Star Trek reference that I won't spoil but is kind of magical in its own way.

To put it another way, while there are thematic parallels between Splendor & Misery to other works of science fiction, both in music and otherwise, the execution of this record is something damn near unique in hip-hop. With a sonic template blending the distant past and future and probably one of the few rappers with the technical skill to marry the jargon with the soulful humanity you'd need to pull this off, plus the sort of brilliant sci-fi Afrofuturist allegory that feels defiantly gritty and unique, I guarantee you won't hear an album like this in the near future. So yeah, two hip-hop records in a row, and just like De La Soul, clipping.'s getting an 8/10 and a high recommendation. I will not say this is more accessible or even better than their self-titled release, and I understand if the target audience for an album like this is painfully narrow... but for those who are in that demographic like me, this is something special. And clipping., though I doubt you're watching this... gentlemen, live long and prosper.

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