In 2014, experimental rap trio clipping. released “Knees on the Ground.” It was a single uploaded to their SoundCloud account, kept at arms’ length from most of their material. And this wasn’t without reason: it was the most overtly political song yet from a group that was apolitical on the surface, from a group that normally made its stories much more refracted than the single, omnipresent viewpoint this one presented. But it still stands as one of their best loose tracks, because it preserves the elements that make their tracks so great: detailed scene-setting from Daveed Diggs, a beat that combines beauty with horror, an overall product that combines immediacy with distance, and a single uncompromising image that dares the listener to blink.
In 2016, the same trio released Splendor & Misery. It’s a vastly different work, of course. Its reference points are closer to H. P. Lovecraft and Deltron 3030 than they are Michelle Alexander or Fear of a Black Planet; its beats are airier than they are noise-driven; the story this one tells is less microscopic than it is wide-screen. It’s a record that could come off as overwrought, a case of a concept overtaking an album. But what makes Splendor succeed is ultimately much more familiar: clipping. have always been at their best when telling stories, and this record allows them to explore one scene at a scale much larger than a single track would.
Every member of clipping., as one might expect, is unashamedly encyclopedic. They’ve mentioned both E-40 and Merzbow as dream collaborators; they’ve cited both Raekwon and Philip Glass as inspirations; they’ve worked with both Bryan Lewis Saunders and Cocc Pistol Cree. The group has said that Splendor is “Parliament filtered through [their] interest in horror.” But in a way, this is deeply traditional, because it (much like 2014’s CLPPNG) is littered with reference points in a genre that always traces back to itself: “All Black” quotes Lupe Fiasco (or Jay Z, or Trinidad James), racial undertones and all; various “freestyles” reference UGK, Kendrick Lamar, Que, The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac. The trio has always been deeply rooted in hip-hop conventions and has openly questioned their labeling as “experimental” hip-hop. Make no mistake, this is music entrenched in the genre’s foundation, even if structurally and sonically it seems to stand alone.
For evidence of that, look no further than Diggs’ performance throughout. And “performance” is really the right word here: Splendor is an Afrofuturist concept album, one about the sole survivor of a slave uprising on an interstellar cargo ship and the onboard computer that falls in love with him. Whereas CLPPNG found the emcee wearing many hats in order to describe an anonymous setting riddled with bullets holes and smoke, Splendor has a much more limited cast, with the on-board computer narrating most of the story. And said narration is solid throughout: Diggs’ trademark speed is as present as ever, with strands of stories both old and new joining the fray. As a pure rap album, it’s great; even if you removed the subject matter, the cadences, flows, and writing would hold the record afloat by themselves. From “The Breach”’s beatless-yet-propulsive beginning to “True Believer”’s mix of Michael Jackson, slave ships, and Kuba mythology, the record sees across-the-board improvements in sheer craft and storytelling.
In addition to Diggs’ motor-mouthed rapping, the main asset the group has comes in William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes, the production duo behind their tracks. They have several soundtracks between them, and that shows: Splendor is coated in ambiance – in the beeping and skittering of machinery, in the metallic wind of empty chambers, in the static of fuzzed-out microphones. Much of the project leaves vocals to serve as the metronome, with hard-hitting drums reduced to distant explosions and electronic pings or static overtaking the bass kicks. A few tracks hit much more immediately, but even those are covered in bursts of noise or frantically oscillating synths or Morse-code clicks. It’s a set of instrumentals that serves equally as setting, story, and soundtrack.
But the thing that makes Splendor so exciting is the layers underneath that veneer. As a concept album, it’s littered with stories and references, with encoded messages recalling mixtapes, with entire songs retelling stories and linking them together in new ways. It may tell a story, but much of it only shows up when you dig. It turns the album into a tangled net, with tracks referencing each other and the history clipping. proposes gradually coming to light. But that’s nowhere near the end of it – as an Afrofuturist record, it’s both a deeply racial affair and an album heavily rooted in science fiction. Diggs is just as likely to reference slave ships as he is mandibles; nooses and the Kefahuchi Tract show up in the same song; both spirituals and clouds of noise dominate tracks. The slave doesn’t return to his home planet, but instead chooses the void of space – and in the context of this story, that’s a victory. In an interview with Red Bull Music Academy, Hutson said:
“H. P. Lovecraft’s cosmic pessimism is only terrifying if you’re a straight white man and you thought you were the center of the universe anyway. To anyone else – and this is why his racism comes into it – finding out that you’re not the most important thing in the universe is a relief. I think it’s interesting that his characters go mad when they figure out that humanity doesn’t matter. It’s only terrifying if you ever thought you were important, if everything in society has propped you up as the dominant category.”
This is what defines the story, an optimism in the face of vast emptiness and control in the face of adversity. That’s what makes it an Afrofuturist record, that’s what makes it as political as “Knees on the Ground” was, and that’s what makes it vital. But, again, even if you ignore the story and its ambitions, it’s still a phenomenal release: some of the most daring production yet in their discography allows for a good number of their most thrilling tracks. It turns out that widening their lens was the perfect response to CLPPNG; the scenes painted here are more fleshed-out than ever before, even if they’re often more opaque.
It’s a record that only clipping. would make, really. The trio have six theater degrees between them; their story-telling has always been fractured and multifaceted; the strand tying all of their releases together is a complete willingness to experiment. And so it is here – and, fortunately, it pays off in spades. With Splendor & Misery, clipping. take crash-landed, oxygen-deprived, spaced-out beats and highly polished rapping to create a powerful product that speaks equally to hip-hop, race, and the future in 2016. For a group this firmly rooted – in hip-hop and experimental music, in storytelling both direct and abstract, in narratives both single-minded and multifaceted – the best way to look proves to be skyward.
FCC: 3, 4, 10, 12, 14, 15
RIYL: Shabazz Palaces, Busdriver, Dälek
Favorite Tracks: 3, 8, 10, 14