Consider for a second the fact that the closest thing to good fortune the Clipse experienced during the process of writing and recording their sophomore album, Hell Hath No Fury, was a beloved rap legend going deaf.
If it weren't for Foxy Brown losing her hearing in the second half of 2005, Pusha T and Malice (as he was then known), brothers from Virginia who had inadvertently sparked a minor culture aware among hip-hop fans, wouldn't have gotten their hands on the beat for "Wamp Wamp (What It Do)," an atonal, dystopian missive for alligator skin and Italian leather. And when Foxy started to hear voices again, Jay Z of all people came calling for the beat back; the brothers didn't budge. They'd been waiting long enough.
The protracted legal battle over Hell Hath No Fury wasn't the first time the Clipse had to wade through a record label's jungle of red tape. Way back in the mid-90s, with voices a half-register higher, they'd parlayed a working relationship with Pharrell into a deal with Elektra. A debut album, Exclusive Audio Footage, was recorded, then shelved when it failed to generate any significant buzz. (On one song—the beat would later be repurposed for a Jadakiss single—Malice, who would go on to change his name to No Malice and put out a deeply felt Christian record, raps, "shit, we plenty nice, own it at any price / got them hardcore wannabe thugs calling on Christ.")
The Clipse bounced back. When they finally made it to retail shelves in the summer of 2002, they were still young, but had been around long enough to get grizzled, get jaded. From the opening notes, Pusha T is running up and down the stairs of his childhood home, humming the theme from Miami Vice, conceding "I see the villain's impact now that I'm older." Lord Willin' was an instant classic to those who picked it up: "Grindin'" reduced lunchroom tables to dust, "Cot Damn" sounded like a low-end-heavy apocalypse, kids from Virginia Beach to Venice Beach started searching for Fam-Lay bootlegs.
Lord Willin' had A-level beats from The Neptunes—the batch most new artists could only dream of. Even setting aside "Grindin'," something like "When the Last Time" would have been a welcome life raft on Blueprint 2. The sounds were mostly what rap listeners had come to expect from Pharrell and Chad Hugo: weird and skull-rattling, but familiar enough to flirt with pop radio. Lord Willin' was the last time the Clipse would hit those comfortable pockets. The album was Gold by the end of September.
In 2004, BMG merged with Sony Music Entertainment, meaning that Arista—the label that had issued Lord Willin'—would be absorbed by Jive, while Star Trak, the Pharrell-led imprint that also had a stamp on the Clipse's success, landed at Interscope. Unfortunately, language in the contract Pusha and Malice had signed precluded them from making the same jump. They were stuck on Jive, where they would remain for the next three years through lawsuits, pushbacks, and indignities like watching their marketing dollars be re-routed to Nick Lachey.
This month, Pusha told GQ "If you mimicked Clipse at a surface level, you would only glorify the street culture because you didn't really live it." That didn't stop innumerable rappers from trying to do just that while the duo sat on the shelf at Jive. The pair of Clipse mixtapes from that purgatory period, We Got It 4 Cheap volumes 1 and 2, were so revered that they helped to tilt the axis of rap discourse in ways that would reverberate for years after the fact. Comprised of freestyles over industry beats and original songs that had been slated for Hell Hath No Fury—and with assists from Ab-Liva and Sandman, who joined Push and Malice to form the Re-Up Gang—the tapes were dizzying successes. See "Zen" from the sequel, which warps and bends their coke rap into a transmission from a far-off galaxy.
The records were brilliant and immediately hailed as such—to the extent that Clipse's style and subject matter superseded all else in the minds of some critics. (Now is when you can listen to Open Mike Eagle's "Your Back Pack Past," which chronicles the mass exodus from the turn-of-the-century indie rap boom and the subsequent move to the snowy avant-garde. Sample lyric: "Write thinkpieces all about context!") In an admittedly dry time for major-label rap, Push and Malice had remade the blogs in their image.
And so when the single finally came (in the fall of 2006 and following a lawsuit and public relations campaign against Jive), they looked, briefly, like conquering heroes. "Mr. Me Too" didn't set radio on fire, but it still sounded like a minor triumph; it let Pusha rap, "these are the days of our lives / and I'm sorry to the fans, but them crackers weren't playing fair at Jive." On Jive.
I remember leaving the gym at my high school when my friend came bounding up to me, clutching the issue of XXL that had the Hell Hath No Fury review—a "XXL" score, the W. Bush era's imitation of five mics.
If "Zen" sounded like it was from outer space, Hell Hath No Fury sounds like it was made by disgruntled shuttle engineers. So much of the Clipse music from the past had been designed to rattle trunks and skulls; this was, too, but it sounds frequently like there's hand-held percussion being played just behind your head. ("Wamp Wamp," the beat the brothers swiped from Foxy, has a punishing low end but also has drums that could be bouncing around in a passing subway car.) And the instrumentation—is that an accordion? A xylophone? Fireworks?
But it added up to something singular. Pharrell's verse on "Mr. Me Too" ("Italian heartthrobs could not get rid of me") was the closest the album would come to happy luxury. There's plenty of material flexing to go around, but it all sounds so empty, so spiteful; "Ride Around Shining" promises just enough flexing to mark the slow decay of muscle and bone. And every trip to Jacob, every roofless coupe and seaside house is underscored by that line from "Keys Open Doors": "I ain't spent one rap dollar in three years, holla."
Most of Hell Hath No Fury sounds like a bad dream—both for the Clipse and for whoever might stand in their way. "Chinese New Year" makes breaking-and-entering sound so routine, Malice might not even break a sweat. "Momma I'm Sorry" speaks directly to Pusha's point about his supposed "glorification" of drug dealing, in that it sounds positively pained for the things he and his brother have done. (There's also that heartbreaking line from the intro, where Malice addresses his brother: "And to my little brother Terrence, who I love dearly so / If ever I had millions, never would you push blow / Never.")
And just as all the material consumption comes with a grim subtext, the trafficking is underscored by serious danger. "Hello New World" ("Bagging up grams at the Hyatt though / the news called it crack, I called it diet coke") ends with a protest from the courtroom—"The judge is saying 'life' like it ain't someone's life." If lawyer fees aren't enough to keep you up at night, Hell Hath No Fury ends with "Nightmares," a five-minute cold sweat of grief and paranoia.
The album's lighter spots—and there are lighter spots—are a Technicolor blur. "Trill" is the most foreign beat on an album full of confounding experiments; on the opposite end of the spectrum, "Dirty Money" sounds like the villain's theme from the kind of B-movie you watch in a dilapidated motel. And "Ain't Cha," which reassembles the Re-Up Gang, tosses salmon around a yacht with ease.
Hell Hath No Fury is a strange sticking point in the Clipse's discography. It might be their most arresting work, and yet it contains relatively few of the sounds that spring to mind when you think of the group. It doesn't sound like the product of Virginia so much as it sounds like a Dali sketch of the state, where perspective contracts and expands with no regard for the laws of physics. It's never been replicated, by the Clipse or their legion of imitators. It can be a dense, disquieting listen, but it's a masterpiece on its own terms.
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