[11 August 2008]
The hip-hop mixtape has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years. Once thought of as a lost art, the last two years have seen high-profile artists like Lil’ Wayne and Kanye West successfully build grassroots hype by dropping mixtapes that were nearly as good as the albums they preceded. And in some cases—Nas, I’m looking in your direction—that pre-album mixtape turned out to be better than the album it was meant to promote. While the mixtape may have reemerged as an indispensable promotional tool in the Internet age, it has still retained its edge as a playground for established artists with major label backing—a safe place where experimental tracks can rub shoulders with new MCs and uncleared samples. Want to hear Kanye rapping over a Thom Yorke track or Clipse rapping over a Kanye track? You know where to look.
The Re-Up Gang (i.e. the Clipse + Philadelphia rappers Sandman and Ab-Liva), have played a larger role in the resurgence of the mixtape than most. During years of contractual squabbles, label drama and litigation, it was the Re-Up Gang mixtape series We Got It For Cheap, that kept the Clipse fresh in the minds of hip-hop fans. Like the Clipse albums that they bookmarked, the Re-Up Gang mixtapes were focused, unyielding and just a little bit weird, featuring both the inimitable wordplay and the distinctive, quirky production that the Clipse built their name on.
It’s odd then, that for the Re-Up Gang’s official debut LP, Clipse Presents: Re-Up Gang, the group has decided to abandon its trademark minimalist sound, releasing 12 radio-friendly tracks that are as unexciting as they are uninspired. And lest you think that this is simply a lazy mistake, the band has gone so far as to cherry pick five tracks from We Got It For Cheap: Volume 3, strip them of DJ Drama’s delightfully eccentric production and remix them with a more commercially-friendly sound. Even worse, on the new tracks, the brothers Thornton sound like they’re holding back, saving all the best rhymes for their forthcoming Clipse full-length. Liva and Sandman mostly keep pace without upstaging the Thorntons—as they tend to do—but in this case, that’s not saying much.
Take, for example, the opening track, an updated version of “Re-Up Gang Intro” from Volume 3 of We Got It For Cheap. Instead of DJ Drama’s booming backbeat and understated horns, we get a weaker beat, some cheesy strings and a chorus of overwrought brass—all front and center in the mix. The end result is a song that’s cluttered and muddy enough to suck the fun out of lines like, “I guess life in jail is but a manicure away/Well I don’t feel like getting my nails done today/Yechh”.
While the tinker toy production in “Street Money” sounds promising at first, the song’s repetitive chorus (“All this street money / All this street money / So much street money”) and lackluster rhymes offer little reason for repeat listens. Lead single “Fast Life” fares even worse; all corny synths and handclaps (courtesy of Scott Storch), the song’s cliché-filled lyric sheet reads like the script for a mid-‘90s hip-hop video (“Money first / Fast cars / Out come the chicks in they panties and bras”). “Bring It Back”, meanwhile, reemerges as a clone of Lil’ Wayne’s “Lollipop”—electric guitar riffs and all. And while “We Know” retains most of its charm even without its Shawty Lo sample (it’s listed as “Dey Know Yayo” on Volume 3), its keyboard hooks all sound like Micro Korg presets.
In case you hadn’t already figured it out, Clipse Presents: Re-Up Gang is a fairly mediocre affair on all fronts. To be fair, a “mediocre” album from the Re-Up Gang is still a passable album by most standards and there are enough clever lines on Clipse Presents (Pusha’s “You caught up in my word / Like its Catcher in the Rye” stands out, for one) that it’s not a total waste for Clipse completists. Still, knowing what these guys are capable of, it’s hard not to fault them for what feels like a hastily cobbled-together cash-in. The Clipse have always been defined as much by their own relentless pursuit of perfection as their ability to push others—like the Neptunes—to do their best work. On Clipse Presents, however, it sounds like they’ve lost that drive, stopping to rest on their laurels for the first time in their career. I suppose that after years of giving great music away for free, they’ve earned the right. But that doesn’t mean that I have to like it. Yechh.