Have some coke and a frown with The Clipse
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First things first: even if there's been a Michael Mann remake of Miami Vice between the day that Pusha T and Malice first rhymed about Tubbs and Crockett and now, Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury (Re Up Gang/Star Trak, 2006) also hath no shortage of extraordinary future-sounds. It never lets up, from the three tracks before the cold Clipse calypso of the new-money anthem "Wamp Wamp" through the seven tracks after the harp strum, extended and echoed for maximum shimmer, on "Ride Around Shining" a startling use of the instrument that ain't Alice Coltrane and sure as hell ain't Joanna Newsom. On "Keys Open Doors," ah harmonies that wouldn't be out of place on Philip Glass's project-haunting Candyman soundtrack back up a title chorus that turns passage metaphors inside out.
Then there's "Chinese New Year," on which Clipse's Malice and Pusha T are joined by the hilariously named Roscoe P. Goldchain for a drive-by in which the ammo is punch-line rap: "Mask on face / Glock in hand," Malice is "in and out of houses like the Orkin Man," while Pusha T has a vixen who'll "eat your face like Ms. Pac-Man." Speaking of white lines and dots and those who gobble and snort them, the Neptunes' production backs these boasts with keyboard squiggles that aren't far from the noises vintage video game monsters make when they're turned into ghosts.
The trademark Neptunes sound has never been better than on Hell Hath, but their touch is a curse as well as a blessing for Clipse. It's a curse because of Pharrell Williams's overexposure and because the long-delayed Hell Hath finally dropped at the exact time that Williams and fellow Neptune Chad Hugo unveiled their worst overdecorated cake of a pop production the yodeling monstrosity known as "Wind It Up," Gwen Stefani's leadoff single from The Sweet Escape. Some East Coast bloggers have given themselves a hand for helping boost Hell Hath 's sales numbers, but commercially speaking, the album has underperformed like, well, a Pharrell solo effort.
But I'd much rather blast Hell Hath than Pharrell's In My Mind (Interscope, 2006), not to mention all but a handful of other albums released last year. The reasons why are too many to be named in full. But one is that Pharrell takes a backseat, doing less MCing and fewer pint-size Curtis Mayfield impressions than on 2002's Lord Willin'. In fact, his misleading front-and-center presence on the first single, "Mr. Me Too," probably didn't do Pusha T and Malice any sales favors. On Hell Hath, the track signals the arrival of a bottom end after two lean and mean cuts the organ-based church of coke testifying of "We Got It for Cheap" and the polka minimalism of the accordion-laced "Momma I'm So Sorry." That bottom end goes Jules Verne deep, whereas Pharrell's version of boasting all Diddy parties and skateboard contracts comes off cartoony and corny next to Pusha T and Malice's dealing drama. The only category in which he's fresher is a stale one, bling: he mentions "Lorraine" (Schwartz), and Clipse refers to the oft-cited Jacob the Jeweler on another track. On Hell Hath's closer, "Nightmares," it's Bilal rather than Pharrell who does the Mayfield impression, just one reason why as a paranoid anthem that rap paradox with Robert Johnson roots, an affirmation of sketchy solitude it's closer to the Geto Boys' classic "Mind's Playing Tricks on Me" than it is to Rockwell's "Somebody's Watchin' Me."
"No hotta / Flow droppa / Since Poppa," Pusha T asserts at the kickoff of "Wamp Wamp." Though he follows that up with a truly terrific double-edged pun ("You penny ante niggaz see I know copper" and also "no Copper"), it's a bit of a stretch to claim he and Malice are in the Biggie leagues. Take Life after Death's "What's Beef?" (Bad Boy, 1997), on which Biggie begins with a vainglorious "ha ha ha ha ha," declares himself the "rap Alfred Hitchcock," and rhymes "I see you" and ICU. On that track he also serves up the couplet "Think good thoughts, die while your skin starts to glisten / Pale blue hands get cold, your soul's risen." In comparison, on "Chinese New Year," Clipse threaten they'll turn you "Cookie Monster blue." Scary cute but no don's cigar.
But they're closer to Biggie than most anyone else these days, save maybe their rival, Bush-bashing Lil' Wayne. Hell Hath is packed with almost as many cleverly phrased disguises for cocaine as it is amazing noises, yet Pusha T and Malice's brand of brotherly love and hate is at its best when it surrounds the drug with an image-laden story, as on "Dirty Money." There, one track after his big bro demonstrates how to cook drugs like a "black Martha Stewart," Pusha T gets so high on his ability to transform substances and words that Benjamin Franklin's face starts to look 3-D and silly on some "new crisp billies." By the time he and Malice are dealing with the inevitable comedown on "Nightmares," the substance of their words could turn the warmest smile upside down. *
With Low B of Hollertronix
Wed/14, 9 p.m., $20
444 Jessie, SF