Clipse have long been characterised as the doyens of cocaine (w)rap, a term which does scant service to the ingenuity of their wordplay and the stripped back nihilism of the music on this, their greatest album. Their interest in words can be traced back to their origins: originally known as the Full Eclipse Crew, they then changed their name to the gun referencing Full of Clips Crew before settling on Clipse. The brothers, Gene (Malice) and Terrence (Pusha T) Thornton started selling crack in their Virginia neighbourhood as teenagers whilst, at the same time, trying to gain a foothold in the local music scene where they met Pharrell Williams who, impressed by their lyrical skills, wanted to work with them, thus beginning a long partnership with The Neptunes production team who have never been better than on this album.
Having released a previously well received album, ‘Lord Willin’, in 2002, it was anticipated that the follow-up would arrive the following year. However, numerous record company changes and contractual problems meant that ‘Hell Hath No Fury’ would not appear for another four years – a lifetime in rap circles. If the William Congreve referencing title didn’t make you aware how frustrated and angry the pair were with the delay, then the music and vocals contained within would.
The first track, ‘We Got It For Cheap (Intro)’, starts with a warped, repetitive mambo beat over which a dealer is selling his wares immediately establishing the predominant theme which is taken up by Pusha T: “Fear him as soon as you hear him / Upon my arrival, the dope dealers cheer him….” There is little doubt that the brothers are intimately acquainted with the drug world they portray here. In ‘Wamp Wamp (What It Do)’ we are told,”17 a brick, yeah, go and tell ’em that /I got the wamp wamp when I move it its still damp /Mildew-ish when I heat it, it turn bluish /It cools to a tight wad…” By the time we get to ‘Keys Open Doors’ (the keys, of course, are kilos of cocaine), the dope is safely stored in the fridge awaiting distribution: “Open the Frigidaire, 25 to life in here / So much white you might think your holy Christ is near / Throw on your Louis V millionaires to kill the glare / Ice trays? Nada! All you see is pigeons paired.” And away from the fictionalised world of the album, the real life friend and manager of the band was imprisoned for 32 years for being the head of a 10 million dollar drug ring. Alongside the vast quantity of songs about drugs, there are occasional glimpses of the violence required to sustain this lifestyle. In ‘Chinese New Year’, they decide to supplement their drug money with an armed robbery: “I’m at your door, your eyes are like why are you here / Judging by my steel I got something to do here / Give up the money or the angel cries two tears / Front of your crib sounding like Chinese New Year.”
So what is it then that differentiates ‘Hell Hath No Fury’ from other macho braggadocio about drugs and violence? Firstly, I think it’s the literate imagery used throughout, for example the idea of a gun firing two bullets likened to an angel crying two tears with the associated religious imagery of angels shedding tears in heaven for this man’s subsequent death. You can go to virtually any song on this album and find dense, literate imagery – Pusha T and Malice can write, that’s for sure.
Secondly, there is real humour here. They may be writing about drugs and violence but there are times when it is difficult to suppress a chuckle. When Pusha T likens his skills to cooking up cocaine to that of Bet Crocker (an American equivalent of Mary Berry), you can envision a reality cooking show where rappers compete to see who can make the best crack.Then, on ‘Mr Me Too’, there is the slapping down of Lil Wayne for his blatant attempts at imitating them: ” Wanna know the time? Better clock us / Niggas bite the style from the shoes to the watches.” There are the knowing references to Miami Vice’s Tubbs and Crockett , The Wire, The Fonz and even the Cookie Monster, Ernie and Bert. There is the sheer stupidity and joy of the chorus to Chinese New Year which goes, “Brat, brat, brat, brat, brat, brat, ka-ka-kat, kat / Brat, brat, brat, brat, brat, brat, ka-ka-kat, kat,” where, vocally, they try to replicate the noise of fireworks or guns.
Thirdly, behind it all, particularly in older brother Malice’s lyrics, you get a sense that he, at least, understands the superficiality and cost of this lifestyle. In the very first song, he says, “And to little brother Terrence who I love dearly so / If ever I had millions never would you push blow, never”; in the next song, he reveals the guilt he feels over his lifestyle choices, “Mama I’m so sorry, I’m so obnoxious / Big home, palm trees, and watches / Mama I’m so sorry, I’m so obnoxious / My only accomplice is my conscience”; and by the final track the confusion and paranoia of a life dependent on crack is plain for all to see, “Look over your shoulder, something is near / And I’m so scared, when I’m alone I’m so scared / Now it’s inching closer, trouble is near / But nothing’s there, when I look nothing’s there / I’m outta my mind, I’m runnin’ from guilt, but / It’s right by my side, there’s nowhere to hide.”
Finally, there is the music in which these words are wrapped. There was a conscious agreement between Clipse and The Neptunes that the production should try to revise some of the early sonic experiments of Mantronix. As a result, everything feels stripped back and encased, coiled up, ready to pounce. The synth soundscapes are restrained but form a threatening backdrop to the beats and rhymes. Unusual instruments like accordians, kettledrums and harp suddenly appear, frequently forming a main component of the song. There is a real tension and darkness in the music that matches the lyrics perfectly.
From Congreve to cocaine, from the making and taking of the drug to the paranoia it can induce, this is as artful an album as you will get anywhere, irrespective of genre.