Tuesday, January 13, 2015
clipping.: CLPPNG (2014)
It doesn't sound promising in theory. An L.A. hip hop collective consisting of a noise artist, a semi-popular synthpop producer and an MC, Daveed Diggs, whom one of them met in high school. As it happens, though, this is terrifying, sophisticated music and constitutes the rare sort of claim that one is hearing the future of an entire genre. clipping. share a label with Shabazz Palaces and combine that group's artful pushing of boundaries with a stronger populist sensibility. They are rap fans, in other words, and don't have Ishmael Butler's impulse to destroy the basis of their work before rebuilding it. That's why this extremely accomplished album has time for a sound collage, rapid-fire MCing over fractured and dead beats and a song that consists entirely of an annoying alarm clock ringing out while Diggs raps over it, but also for fierce and triumphant hooks like those of the instant earworm "Work Work" and the anti-gangsta instructional parable "Or Die."
Diggs would be a voice to relish with or without his bandmates, something clear from the first thirty seconds of this record, and they'd be nothing but another fast-flaccid bloghype without him (though we admire any modern record that closes with a wordless five-minute salute to John Cage), but the blend of their talents creates a truly beguiling sound that's both immediate and startlingly inventive. William Huston and Jonathan Snipes build tracks of almost unbearable tension that sustain, explode or unfurl as Diggs' delivery demands. So when he wants to parody the modern slow-jam on the amusing "Tonight," they go all the way with the cheese; elsewhere, minimalism permeates and not just so that Diggs can take center stage but so that music and words can bounce off each other in a new, dynamic fashion. The fabulous, Biggie-referencing "Dream" is delivered almost entirely in a whisper and a monotone, backed up by chimes and ambient noise that all fall together into an atmospheric dirge. But when Diggs is presenting a harrowing narrative about a reformed criminal found out by an old murderous cohort who exacts painful revenge on "Story 2," they step back and utilize what sounds like a skipping half-formed groove that reaches a Roy Orbison-like tragic crescendo; you only notice it when you tune out Diggs' stunningly nuanced and breakneck delivery, but you appreciate its detail and subtlety once you do. Outside of Kate Tempest's album, it's the most arresting act of hip hop storytelling this year, with an added air of crushing tragedy.
The subject matter favored on CLPPNG runs largely in that direction -- of unchecked bravado and unforseen comeuppance, the stuff of Kubrick and Breaking Bad and also the stuff of hip hop legend. Using a chorus of kids like on "Dominoes" has a big presence in the world's oldest bag of ironic tricks, but in this context it comes across as both resigned and alienating, more Leonard Cohen circa "Last Year's Man" than Kanye West circa "We Don't Care." On "Work Work," Diggs sets up an impossible scenario for his hero then lays out the truth about where inner city badassery ends up: "It really doesn't matter cause you already dead / No obitaries for the most part / Nobody cares, you are not even a costar / Just an extra they read about as a number."
The sounds weave around, always unexpected, often cleverly traumatic, and the pleasures are an astounding mixture of the conventional and the odd. Where do you classify "Body and Blood," the rare murder ballad with a female protagonist? Or "Get Up," which if you can actually stand it does more with less than almost any pop song I can name? This is a musically rich, exciting record. But it's inevitable that Diggs takes up a lot of attention with his wordplay; it might not be that unusual, especially in the post-Heems era, for a rapper in a short span of time to reference Rorschach tests, Andrew Dice Clay, Cypress Hill's "How I Could Just Kill a Man," hipsters rocking Jeezy tees, and the Beach Boys and their record label. But the impression is made by the barbed and complex wordplay that surrounds these offbeat moments. Not one of them is there just for the hell of it. In "Dream", a conjuring of placid peace a la Neil Young: "Wouldn't it be nice to beach boy for a year or six / turn harmony to [C]apitol / trade the bricks for sand dollars"; in "Summertime," well, just watch:
So he keep it rollin' like that dice game
Homies talk shit, Andrew Dice Clay
Homies take shifts watching vice playing nice like they ain't narcs
Roll a seven, guns spark, dogs bark, dial nine-eleven
That's one of Diggs' calmer moments, actually; he keeps himself mostly in a stark monotone throughout the record, but he can frequently spit with Busta Rhymes-like speed, weaving dark miniature tales of urban pain, of the agony imposed on a minority by capitalism. "Living in the ghetto cause the rent is cheap / and the cost of living is the life you living / and the life you living is the nicest given / that you ice the living / that they cry for more of that good poison / that hood oil, that cash cow need cash now [...] / don't you think, or don't you think about it? / Stop all the thinking, instincts is how you kill a giant." Diggs' voice coyly suggests he sees the lie in this, confirmed later on in "Ends": "Eyes closed, hands up / don't look and don't say nothing / yeah, you getting got but they don't know that / you ain't got nothing, broke robbing the broke / and there's broken pieces of sanity on the floor / scattered for sure, jigsaw in the brain / Rorschach is for psychos / ain't nobody crazy in here, this is where logic is vital." In other words: the outside-imposed bliss, robbing and eating itself, of a corned-off oblivion -- that's the Lifestyle.
Such clear-eyed journalism is Diggs' specialty. Aside from "Story 2," his strongest illustration is in the closing verse of "Inside Out," which sardonically describes the aftermath of a murder-on-the-outside, everybody-inside violent crime:
Orange cones and yellow tape
Palm trees swayin', passers by all look the other way
Nobody speak to police this or any other day
They comb the streets, knock door to door asking for mother's sake
Trying to catch another break
Body on the pavement 'bout 10 steps from the front porch
Photographer snappin' pics to go with the coroner's report
Of the seven exit wounds, three in the skull, four in the torso
Blood spread dry, red black red snapback even more so
Lays three paces to the south
The direction of the wind
New deputy pissed picking up shell casings again
Finds one in the browning grass by the sagging four foot high chain link fence
Drops it in a bag marked 'Evidence'
Here come that Caprice again
Rolling too slow up the street; men sit four deep in
They seats and slow up by the scene, bandanas hide they faces
But all they heads are shakin'
They nod in unison and hit the corner without breakin'
Diggs puts all of that across in forty seconds. The other two members of clipping. bring the track home with their tricky, willfully strange industrial backdrop -- which seems flippant against the subject matter, most likely on purpose -- and this union is seamless. It remains such when his unfiltered insights unfold against the sound of a glitchy MP3 or a malfunctioning radio. If CLPPNG is a triumph of bizarre, innovative sounds made accessible -- more accessible than Death Grips, Shabazz Palaces, even the abrasive recordings of the Bomb Squad circa It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and probably even Yeezus -- it's because it's also a triumph of word-based imagery. And it's a phenomenal, smart performance as strange and exciting as the freshest hip hop of any era. clipping. is the real deal, further evidence that American hip hop, over and below ground and a-little-of-both, is brighter and faster-moving than ever.