If any group were to succeed in making a rap opera in outer space, it would be Clipping.
LA-based hip-hop group Clipping. reared from the starting gate an unwieldy beast, crafting some of the harshest rap music of the early 2010s. The moniker alone reveals their machine worship, named for the distortion produced when an audio signal maxes out the amplifier. The trio -- comprised of William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes, and Daveed Diggs -- holds pedigrees in domains well outside hip-hop: Hutson and Snipes have composed for film, and Diggs starred in revolutionary Broadway production Hamilton. While noise rap and musical theatre exist in distinct ecospheres, both works serve as culturally informed pastiche, demonstrations of a “conscious” mastery of disparate forms. And in Clipping.’s case, the product falls at the juncture of hardcore, industrial, and abstract hip-hop -- though this will be the last time we speak of genre labels.
If anything, Clipping. proves the categorical futility of labeling hip-hop, laying to rest all doubt that hip-hop can be anything you spit verses over. This trio feels just as comfortable finding their rhythmic center in power electronics and field recordings as their contemporaries do in 808s. Though Clipping. is by no means the first or even the most radical rap groups to dive into the abyss of noise -- take the Beatnigs of the ’80s, Techno Animal of the ’90s, Dälek of the ’00s -- the group reaches as dark and transgressive depths as any other. One may have difficulty speaking of Clipping. without mention of Death Grips, though the two groups exist merely as points in the vast constellation of no holds barred hip-hop. Decades of experimentation have forged the way so that only now can a group of this disposition garner anything like mainstream attention. So how does such a group, equipped with Broadway-crossover appeal and a Sub Pop contract, go about their third full-length release? By making a rap opera in outer space, of course!
When done right, concept albums relate grand narratives through a mix of humor and insight, but more often, they alienate listeners with bombast or heavy-handedness. In these instances, it seems the music must continually play catch up with the concept, and unfortunately, Splendor & Misery can fall into this trap. Frankly, if you don’t know what to make of this record, you’re not alone. You can’t ignore its streak of brilliance. Diggs’ tongue twisters alone, spit rapidfire with impeccable diction in the vein of Busta Rhymes or Busdriver, make for a compelling listen. And the overt Afrofuturist concept, which expands on the mythology laid out by Sun Ra and Parliament-Funkadelic, charms far more often than it addles. With its gospel overtones -- the a capella “Story” and work song-inspired “Long Way Way” -- the result, in theory, crafts a revisionist post-slavery narrative as relevant as ever to black America. In the mechanics, however, things begin to unwind.
Splendor & Misery paradoxically stands as Clipping.’s most and least accessible albums. “True Believer” sounds like something you’d find on an Anticon release, and the verses of the Kendrick-referencing “All Black” wouldn’t be so out of place on K-Dot’s next release. The second single, “Air ’Em Out”, recalls 2014’s elegant banger “Work Work”, though this time, we’re serenaded about space trapping and space pussy: "With his partners tryna make his fuckin’ name in the traps / All the way from Panshekara to the Kefahuchi tract." And compared with any of the pleasantly earsplitting beats of 2013’s midcity, the beeps and fuzz of Splendor & Misery feel tame.
It’s the high-concept eclecticism, however, that makes this record so cumbersome. Amidst unprecedented stylistic leaps and machine-gun rapping, comprehending the meaning of Splendor & Misery is a true challenge. Sub Pop’s release page spills the record’s storyline, but part of fun is in decoding the fate of our cosmically lonesome hero and his sentient computer companion for yourself. The album lacks breaks between songs, and the 17-item track list, complete with interludes and “freestyles”, compels you to digest the album in its entirety, so you have little choice but to be patient. Furthermore, Clipping. has always exuded technocentrism, and this record only affirms a view of the universe as a cold and empty place. (It’s a double-edged sword that when you take on a robotic theme, the product may come across as, well, robotic.) But the final track, “A Better Place”, does wonders to wrap up the album and restore a sense of humanity. Triumphant, feel-good verses sit atop a jingly, minimalist beat with the repeated hook: "There must be a / Better place to / Be somebody / Be somebody else.” It’s fitting that a group committed to the limitless expansion of the hip-hop canvas end its dystopian saga on a note of optimism -- a nebulous yet undying faith in a better tomorrow.