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Music

The Old Dominion in Song: Clipse and the Virginia Schism

Though the trappings may be different, the rhetoric layered beneath Lord Willin’ is a borrowed form of dubious justification that reeks of the Virginia slave system.

An Old War Between Profit and Guilt


The Machiavellian philosophies roll off the tongues of crack pushers with the same cunning ease that flew off the pens of early Virginia slave owners.
Crack, like colonial cash crops, is the product of complex international trade configurations rooted in commodities that are dependent on powerful hierarchies as a facilitator of market desires. A chain of production links coca fields in South America with importers in Central America, wholesale distributors in major North American metropolises and regional distribution hubs that feed into local marketplaces.

Though international cocaine movement and the early tobacco trade benefited or harmed many discrete parties along the supply line, it's safe to say that the biggest losers in both industries have been those of African descent. Both crack and tobacco have benefited from a triangular interplay between commerce, power and sorrow. The market value of a hogshead of Virginia tobacco (as well as Caribbean sugar cane, southern indigo and a host of lesser cash crops) in mid-1600s London was justification to invent a category of sub-humanity convenient and convincing enough to legitimize the chattel enslavement of millions of Africans.

To ensure compliance, a brutal duality of violence and paternal Christianity was liberally applied to the African slave’s mind. As the First Families of Virginia accumulated vast fortunes, the slaves that worked their fields were re-fashioned into objects of subjugation. Many argue that the epigenetic memory of broken families, savage violence, and bred subservience remains in the subconscious structures of African American society. Meanwhile, inside the vast plantation homes, the clamor for luxury goods, increased political prestige, and social acceptance provided a useful distraction for slave owners eager to distance themselves from the dirty terms of the labor that tilled their fields and made their fortunes.

In crack cocaine, the relationship changes slightly as an inter-ethnic hierarchy imposes a similar commerce / power / sorrow relationship on new social dynamics that enable African-Americans to benefit from the exploitation of their own in-group. The trappings are not dissimilar. The Machiavellian philosophies roll off the tongues of crack pushers with the same cunning ease that flew off the pens of early Virginia slave owners. The sorrow of the black body is an identical by-product that goes largely unaddressed by those who profit from a commodity market. Like the planation masters of yore, rampant social toxicity is a small price to pay to elevate a select few to material prominence.

***

On Lord Willin’, Clipse achieve an eerie synchronicity with their homeland’s former plantation ethos. “Virginia” is a sorrowful ode stocked full of resignation and realpolitik. The two MCs unintentionally embody the figure of the old master in a track that pays obliging respect to the ancient system of racial spite spiked with profit.

Now famous “Happy” crooner, then Virginia Beach based producer and MC Pharrell kicks off the track with an ominous keynote, “it’s Virginia, nigga / we do this in broad daylight / it’s a whole different degree of homicide, nigga / you ready?” Pusha-T delves right into the nitty gritty of crack production, “I’m from Virginia, where ain’t shit to do but cook / pack it up, sell it triple-price, fuck the books”

With that chorus, Clipse establishes the root objective of life in Virginia: money. The accumulation of wealth requires a certain amount of due diligence, “In my ‘home sweet home’ I keep chrome next to my bones / alters my walk to limpin’.” Here Pusha-T crafts a spooky corollary to antebellum Virginia when slave revolts like Gabriel’s (1800) and Nat Turner’s (1831) created an air of paranoia amongst white slave owners.

Virginians quite literally took an interest in keeping chrome next to their bones in their home sweet homes as whites armed themselves and began to organize the militias that would make the Southern armies so potent in the coming Civil War. Worse yet, the early 19th century found whites reinvesting in their supposed God-given right to enslave Africans they viewed as inferior. Christ as kindred spirit to purchasing power appears also in Pusha-T’s line, “but my faith and my money helped me rise above”.

The song then moves towards notes of Old South nostalgia and straight-up social Darwinism. “In that ol’ Virginny”, Pusha spits in his best auctioneer’s impression, “out of ten niggas, nine are guinea” .

The chorus runs again. Malice adds his two cents with an understated twang of resignation, “I reside in VA, ride in VA / most likely when I die, I’m gon’ die in VA.” He goes on with a warning about the cost of business, “Virginia’s for lovers, but trust there’s hate here / for out-of-towners, who think that they gon’ move weight here.”

In a final haunting refrain, the track’s realism merges with a stark and ghostly reminder of the historical terms that cast ugly shadows over the prestige available in the drug trade: “ironic, the same place I’m makin’ figures at / that there’s the same land they used to hang niggas at / in Virginia”.

***

Dig past the gritty boasts and Lord Willin’ reveals itself as a tragedy. An age-old format for exploitation created and perpetuated the chasm of opportunity that separated the white Virginia from the black Virginia. The ultimate end product of that precedent is the vicious, profitable and crack addled 20th century Tidewater that Pusha and Malice so skillfully render here. In that last menacing verse in “Virginia,” the dam cracks if only briefly and the unpaid toll of four hundred years of sorrow begins to flood the riverine bottoms of the Tidewater soul.

Though Lord Willin’ finds Clipse making an art of skirting the human cost of the crack trade, the butcher’s bill remains. For Terrence and Gene Thornton, the great losers of the contemporary cash crop are not a distant abstraction. They are friends, family, acquaintances and potential customers who have become casualties of chemical dependence, incarceration or drug violence.

Whether consciously or not, Lord Willin’ marks an emotional high point in the career of both MCs. The good times did not last. Clipse’s follow up album, Hell Hath No Fury (2006), much of Pusha-T’s solo work and Malice’s “Amazing Grace”-styled memoir, Wretched, Pitiful, Poor, Blind and Naked (2011), all have the feel of atonement.

Lord Willin’ is a potent albeit brief zenith in a system of sadness that Clipse and the Neptunes carefully translated into culture. In doing so, they created an almost timeless document of another typical Virginian phenomenon: the quest to undo the hurt of history.

In their own unique way, Pusha-T and Malice created a monument to the futility of greed in allaying the spiritual weight of exploitation. Considered in these terms, Lord Willin’ joins the Arthur Ashe statue on Monument Avenue, the former Richmond slave markets at Shockoe Bottom, the Monticello slave cabins and countless other sites as a memorial where Virginians can go to understand the terms of a four century old war between profit and guilt.

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