Four years ago, the gangsta rappers Clipse were brash, major-label hotshots with a gold-certified debut and rap's biggest producers—fellow Virginia Beach natives the Neptunes—in their corner. But then Clipse's label, Arista, went belly-up, and a trail of fine print has kept the rappers from releasing a follow-up album. Full of music and eager to remind fans that they still exist, Clipse have moved down to hip-hop's minor leagues, the mixtape circuit, while dreaming of their big-league comeback. The duo's strange journey from mainstream up-and-comers to cult heroes will be thrown into relief this Friday, when they take the stage at New York's Knitting Factory, a small downtown club usually given to indie-rock, avant-jazz, and left-of-center rap. Thanks to mixtapes, though, the show isn't an anomalous salute to two-gangsta also-rans: It promises to be one of the most exciting hip-hop events of the year.
That prediction rests on the excellent Clipse mixtape We Got It 4 Cheap, Vol. 2. Strictly speaking, the album is not quite legal and, for that matter, not quite an album. Mixtapes—speedily produced CDs decorated with crude Photoshop effects and sold through mom-and-pop stores, Web sites, and street-corner bootleggers—operate in a gray market, free of meddling executives and costly sample clearance laws. If you like a beat on the radio, it's yours to take and do with what you will, no matter who owns it. Since mixtapes generate meager revenue but are invaluable promotional tools, the major labels tend to look the other way.
What separates Clipse MCs Malice and Pusha T from their gangsta peers is how they rap about the cooking, bagging, and selling of cocaine to the exclusion of literally everything else. Underlying all the drug talk is an evergreen hip-hop preoccupation—authenticity—that Clipse articulate in novel ways. From Jay-Z to Jeezy, rappers who explore inner-city life and crime have struggled against the very idea of "rapping," which suggests artifice and performance in a genre where realness and lived experience are sovereign. The truly real rappers, the paradox goes, don't rap. "It's a known fact y'all tired of the circus/ so come home where you smell the crack in the verses," Malice beckons on Cheap's smoldering opener, "Reup Intro."
Malice's promise is that Clipse, through sheer volume and detail of drug talk, can rehabilitate rap by reconnecting gangsta signifiers—shopworn, depleted, and theatricalized—to their pungent, gritty signifieds. Or, as Malice puts it elsewhere, cheekily alluding to hours spent cooking crack on a stovetop: "Sold a million plus/ and still I'm in the kitchen like I'm Wolfgang Puck."
Even as one suspects that Clipse's anti-theatricality is just another, shrewder sort of performance, they succeed: The music is thrilling, frightening. In large part, this is thanks to Malice and Pusha's staggering sang-froid, captured in their crisp, freeze-dried sneers. On "Play Your Part," the swaggering Pusha paints a triptych of diamond watches, South American suppliers, and the hapless victims stranded somewhere in between:
All the snow on the timepiece confusing them
All the snow on the concrete Peruvian
I flew 'em in, it ruined men, I'm through with them
Blamed for misguiding their life
So go and sue me then
With lyrics like these, Clipse breaks rank with rappers like the Notorious B.I.G., who justified drug dealing as a means to feed his daughter, or 50 Cent, who sees it as one in a limited set of career options open to black youth, or Kanye West, who identified it as a complicated sort of political violence on his recent song "Crack Music." On Cheap, Clipse refuse to explain, romanticize, or "humanize" the dealer's lifestyle. They are unabashed, calculating villains. "It's only logic, I'm all about a profit," Malice raps. In this way, Clipse leave those of us whose neighborhoods haven't been ravaged by crack to sit in the stench of our own voyeuristic enjoyment.
That's their signal achievement. For all the abject subject matter here, there is enjoyment, too: The album legitimately counts as a guilty pleasure. For one thing, the beat choice is masterful. "Play Your Part" is as evil-sounding as hip-hop gets; "What's Up" rides a sinewy, gothic organ riff; the closing "Ultimate Flow" offsets a hammering drumbeat with plaintive guitar peals. These beats don't let in very much light, but they're impossibly catchy.
Clipse like to offset their remorselessness with deft verbal play, too, luxuriating in simile, slang, double entendre, and allusion even as they narrate the wholesale destruction of lives. They call crack things like "ostrich," "sorbet," and "pudding" and invoke Dr. Seuss. Ironically, they're fantastic "rappers," delighting in the sort of literary techniques that hardened murderers and dealers are supposed to have no truck with. Malice winks at this on "Mic Check": "You can tell how I write/ the boy's such an author I should smoke a pipe."
Clipse's real coup is that they are fully conscious. Much like Kanye West, Clipse have whipped up a stew of exquisite contradiction and soaked in it. This is nowhere richer than on "I'm a Hustla" where Malice loses his characteristic cool and snarls at a police informant:
Your race is betrayed
On the bottom of the food chain, I spit on your grave
You the modern day African capturing slaves
How you live with yourself? You can't escape your face
I put it in the street, they can't escape the taste
There's a dark irony here: Who is the one "capturing slaves," after all? Is it the snitch who helps district attorneys fill prison cells, or is it the dealer who amasses a desperate clientele of addicts? It's a dense moment—one that the pronoun "you" leaves ambiguous—that highlights the album's stone-faced insight into an inner-city economy where black success depends on the exploitation other blacks.
Malice finally acknowledges some psychic trauma, if not regret, on the very last song. "Cruising in the drop and still I feel/ As if I'm nothing more than a hamster in a wheel," he admits.
Enough with the women, they don't see past the chain
I don't see past the ass, two can play the game
Gotta thank God for 'caine, I guess that's the twist
'Cause if I never sold, my rhymes would sound like this
Then he goes silent. It's probably the most haunting moment on the album.