Wednesday, October 23, 2019

album review: 'there existed an addiction to blood' by clipping.

I've had the suspicion for a long time that there's a subsection of critics that just don't 'get' clipping. And on some level I do include myself, in that with every listen I've given to a clipping. album I'm almost positive that I'm missing some sort of larger detail that demands deeper examination, either in the noisy, experimental glitch of the production or Daveed Diggs' snarled, endlessly charismatic wordplay. More to the point, clipping. has not really stuck with any clear tradition or arc in hip-hop: their self-titled debut was as much of a ruthless parody of the brutality of the streets as its production still managed to generate some of the most experimental but accessible bangers of the decade. And yet after Daveed Diggs starred in Hamilton, you'd think the easy path would be to slightly more conventional hip-hop to capitalize on that success... so let's make Splendor & Misery, an even more convoluted and thorny hip-hop space opera in the tradition of Deltron 3030 that brought in elements of spoken word, icier textures, and even blues and southern gospel. 

And thus when I've seen the mixed critical reception to There Existed An Addiction To Blood, characterizing the album as horrorcore thanks to its title reference to the 1970s experimental horror film Ganja & Hess, which is a project exploring black vampirism as an extended metaphor for addiction, cultural assimilation, white imperialism, and religion, and considering in some cases you don't see any of those added depths even being discussed, you get the impression that a lot of folks have missed the point. Hell, you can make the argument that most haven't even bothered doing the research to articulate any point to begin with, but you should all know that's not how I make reviews, so here we go: what did we get from There Existed An Addiction To Blood?

You know, I've mentioned before that I'm a big fan of 70s exploitation films, not just because of the aesthetic but often because they were often overambitious and transgressive in their themes and messaging - in the guise of trash, the best would spin a much more grisly and provocative narrative often gone overlooked but just as hard-hitting. And that was a thought that sprung to mind a lot when exploring the "horrorcore" side of There Existed An Addiction Of Blood, a subgenre that at its best would expose provocative ideas through allegory in graphic detail, and given how both of clipping.'s last two albums are drenched in that high-concept framework, it's not at all surprising that this project continues that tradition for a pretty great, if harrowing album. And while I don't think it has the immediate and insane catchiness and accessibility that made the self-titled album such a standout, it does feel like it strikes a slightly better balance between high-concept allegory and grounded structures than Splendor & Misery, which makes it - for the most part - easier to revisit, even despite being more nightmarish.

And we have to start with structure because this album might seem a little deceptive in how one takes it in - the length seems comfortably over an hour, but that is most due to the closing track, which following in the wake of CLPPNG is an experimental piece where the band sets a ruined piano on fire and literally lets it burn for eighteen minutes. And while in the context of the album I'd argue it does have a thematic purpose, it is the sort of piece that doesn't exactly help the overall tightness of the album, already peppered with multiple sampled interludes to ramp up the horror vibe and in particular one titled 'Prophecy' that is a distorted segment of said closing piano fire. And from there, on the surface the stories in-between are exactly what you'd expect from a horrorcore project: zombies and werewolves and vampires and serial killers and graphic torture, with Daveed Diggs playing the Tales From The Crypt/Twilight Zone narrator with a little less raw expressiveness as he blasts through his bars, but no less intensity. And given that most of this album is built upon ramping up an atmosphere of haunted, paranoid isolation and despair, that is the right method of delivery... even if I'm not always convinced some of his guest stars can match that vibe. This was an issue on the self-titled album in that Diggs can be a presence that utterly consumes the track from every angle, and it's a little true here as well: 'La Mala Ordina' is a track that takes the Pusha-T route of exposing the grisly reality of street killers through Mafia iconography, and while this is absolutely potent territory, ElCamino and Benny The Butcher just can't capture the same menace in both delivery and wordplay Diggs can. Similar case for the serial killer La Chat plays on 'Run For Your Life' - she's a potent rapper on a great song, but I'm not hearing the delivery that fully nails that sense of dread. What I found a lot more effective was the howling, guttural screaming behind 'Club Down' from Sarah Bernat - especially when you consider the deeper context of the song, it had a very Lingua Ignota vibe and I intend that as a compliment.

But let's dig much deeper into that, shall we, because beneath the broken teeth, exposed sinew, severed limbs, and heaping piles of gore, clipping. is aiming to do a lot more than just shock the audience - one reason you can see why it doesn't just go for the quick crescendos and scares like 'Story 2' and are willing to be a little more patient in setting the scene. And that's because Diggs is looking to dig deeper into the roots of fear and despair in scenes you wouldn't expect and yet many of which are very specific to a black experience. 'Nothing Is Safe' is a prime example, because while on the surface it might seem like the sort of 'trapped in normal house and attacked by violent spirits' narrative... until you realize the victims are selling out of a trap house, the bloody swathe is being torn by bullets, and the final victim is gunned down by a faceless man silhouetted by the sun, with a religious metaphor that doesn't shy away from the 'white crusader' narrative pushed by racist enforcers of the law. And that police narrative doesn't pull away either, as the next song 'He Dead' flips a Kendrick Lamar sample for a story of the lost dreams of a well-educated black man who is stuck selling instead of pursuing his master's degree, where silver bullets and chains become the only thing that keeps the werewolves of the law at bay. And the stories remain just as political the deeper you delve into the project, especially on a song like 'Blood Of The Fang', which raises the bleak question how much violence might really be necessary to defeat white supremacy, where given the unjust torture and deaths of their slave ancestors how they might have to embrace dark, vampiric iconography to beat back strictures of religion and unjust hierarchies - where Diggs undoubtedly knows how said religion often co-opted and warped pagan and African symbolism to mean something "satanic" or "evil". 

And it's not the first time this album reminds me of Algiers' similar fusion of pitch-black textures and iconography to reclaim them, and yet clipping. is also keenly aware of how those appetites can leave a ghastly wake, and they're smart enough to frame the songs to be self-referential as well, from the rap poseur heading to Hollywood for success only to be cut to shreds on 'Run For Your Life' to how the gangstas respond with disgust and violence to those co-opting gang iconography without knowing the costs on 'La Mala Ordina'. Then there's 'All In Your Head', which following after the possession interlude where initially I was a little skeptical how much it worked - seemed a little sex-negative in painting the prostitutes being pimped as 'possessed' and only redeemed by religion at the end... until you realize how much 'Blood Of The Fang' that directly follows it recasts Christian religion as another tool of white supremacy in America. Besides, 'Story 7' follows shortly afterwards taking a similar critique of a lustful narrative - although like with all of clipping's story songs, the humanistic details can't help but cast even Cynthia the werewolf in a vaguely sympathetic light, choking on her blood in the arms of Randy from 'Story 1' even as the little girl Trina in the window questions whether it's all real.. which might be clipping.'s most potent bit of subtext of it all. See, for as much Diggs describes in these songs, he rarely if ever telling a straightforward narrative, relying more on starkly described details and letting the audience's imagination fill in the gaps - we'll come back to this a lot more when we discuss 'Piano Burning' - but not only does it serve to amplify mystique, it also raises the oblique question to less discerning audiences if they can really believe both the horror stories and the subtext of systemic oppression... even despite highlighting how culpable they are. This comes through in arguably some of the most abstract - and shocking - songs on the album, the most obvious being the torture song 'The Show', which tells the story of red rooms where deep web watchers can pay to watch people tortured and killed... and it's not long before you can recognize the subtext of just how many do the same through the trail of bodies behind hip-hop, thematic subtext from Vince Staples' FM! that again rears its head. Then there's 'Club Down', which takes the subversive arc clipping. has already explored the self-titled album and recasts it as graphic, drug-addled zombie horror, juxtaposing gangsta bravado with the screams of everyone affected - and if this one cuts deep for me it's because I got a short story published in 2013 that contains a lot of the same surrealist horror iconography, it became very real. Of course, the most jarring reality comes on 'Attunement', which might seem abstract and flat and emotionless... until you realize the entire song is from the perspective of someone depressed and suicidal, crushed down by self-hate induced by racism, standing on the rickety chair with his head already in the noose.

But powerful writing and subtext has always been a given with clipping. - how the production frames it is another, and I'll be blunt: despite the lingering, haunted atmosphere of menace cultivated across this project, there is a part of me that can't help but feel it's a little meandering and lacking the tune that has given their best songs so much impact. That's not saying the hooks and impact don't come through, because they absolutely do, especially in the noisier, industrial-leaning moments - the shrill keening synths sliding around the lurking low tones and staccato keyboards build impressive impact into the brittle hi-hats and crushing layers of 'Nothing Is Safe', and I've already talked about the crushing waves against the muffled screams of 'Club Down' before Diggs' snide singing cuts through, and the bubbling distorted stomps of twisted noise on 'The Show' and bleeping fragmentation that still builds funereal swell on 'Attunement' are genuinely unsettling. And that's before 'Story 7' flips its weird vocal melodies into one of the most freewheeling tumbles of gritty groove I've heard in some time! And following in the same path as Splendor & Misery, clipping. is still pulling from traces of gospel and the darkest tracts in blues, with Ed Balloon contributing his stark Jamaican tones on the haunted darkness of 'He Dead' and Sam Waymon contributing a vocal snippet against the bassy and ominous sampling pulses of 'Blood Of The Fang'. Now it's not all great - I still think the juxtaposition on 'All In Your Head' doesn't quite work as well as it should, and the increased pileup of static on 'La Mala Ordina' runs a little too long, but that's the sort of experimentation that also gives us 'Run For Your Life', where to cultivate the desperate road escape, outside of the very spare beat the most actual melody and beat we get are precisely timed field pickups of traffic - and Diggs can ride them on key! But of course the biggest question comes with 'Piano Burning' - why it's here, why clipping. chose to recreate the 1968 Annea Lockwood performance piece... and yet with the thematic concept running through the album, it makes sense. Following 'Attunement' and its suicidal themes, the larger, lingering sense of creeping, apocalyptic doom across the project, the self-titled album having the reprise of 'Williams Mix' which itself was a performance art recreation of John Cage's composition of the same name... etching out the destruction of a ruined instrument just seems natural, especially if something is to be rebuilt from the ashes.

So to summarize... look, I'm not going to say that those who have been harshly critical of the album 'just don't get it', even if it might be true of some. And if I'm being blunt, for as experimental and challenging as this project can be with its incredibly strong thematic core and phenomenal rapping and layers upon layers of atmospheric production... as a whole there are still enough points that don't quite click to make me say it's better than their self-titled album. It's really damn close, which is why I'm giving this an extremely strong 8/10, but it's also the sort of album that I can see sinking its fangs even deeper with every listen. Haunting, abrasive, and one hell of a dark listen - especially if you glimpse the true horror lurking beneath it - it's alongside CALIGULA from Lingua Ignota as one of the most unsettling listens of the year - and one of the most essential. So yeah, check this out.

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