Hell Hath No Fury

(Jive; 2006)

By Clayton Purdom, Chet Betz, & Christoper Alexander | 1 December 2006

In hindsight, it seems perfect. There we all were at CMG’s Belvedere-dispensing “water” cooler, smoking cigars and rehashing recent witticisms, when the topic of the Clipse’s sycophantically lamented sophomore record came up. Nool: “The Clipse are the Catholic Church of internet criticism.” How we guffawed at this jab! It became site slogan the following week, because the blind hype around the Clipse just didn’t quite make sense to some of us [“Some of you, maybe.”—Mark]. Lord Willin’ (2002) brought the world, yes, “Grindin’” and “When the Last Time” and “I’m Not You,” but also a scattering of uneven tracks, of dazzling rhymes matched with lackluster beats and passable emceeing taped onto showcase drumwork. It was a good debut by any account, but the tribal chest-thumping that had begun to beat for Hell Hath No Fury’s oft-delayed release became so loud that something seemed awry. So ravenous was the internet’s appetite for this follow-up—so vocal were the bloggers’ ululations—that Nool’s comment seemed to capture their unwavering, unquestioning devotion.

But now that the album drops, full of fire-and-brimstone rhetoric, nihilistic bloodshed, and grim, overbearing guilt complexes, Nool’s statement seems outright prescient. Extending the metaphor, this here’s the rapture: the rivers run red with hype, and in swoops a plague of bloggers, giddy like Jigga just came back shitty. But here’s the thing: defying prediction, the kids are right. The hype was (gulp) correct. Hell Hath No Fury is hot. Dirtily, nastily, pipingly hot. Not Best Rap Album of the Year hot; Best Rap Album in a Few Years hot. Call it Trillmatic: HHNF clocks in at 12 tracks, 49 minutes, and 0 skits, all of it blistering.

Pusha T and Malice have done nothing less than create the most cohesive, sustained lyrical performance since The Cold Vein (2001), if not The Infamous (1995). And this performance, combined with the Neptunes’ stomach-churning, career-defining production, makes HHNF rap’s leanest, meanest, most harrowing, most forward-pushing piece of world creation since at least Cannibal Ox’s epochal debut, if not Mobb Deep’s rib-rattling second record. These reference points are both convenient and correct, but there are noteworthy differences. The Cold Vein and HHNF both boast remarkable unity, the production drawing consistently from one sonic template, the emceeing intertwined therein through theme, tone, and flow. But while Cannibal Ox’s eventual impact was so great because they were outsiders, dissatisfied with hip-hop’s increasingly ballooning mind state and reacting with a dense, unsettling call to arms, they merely yelled through the window until it shattered. HHNF works insidiously from within the scene, a chest-bursting Alien in the well-fed corpus of bling rap. This is, after all, MTV-ready Neptunes-approved trap-hop, and while the brothers Clipse sneer openly at Jeezy, they still sit in the cafeteria with him.

So this is technically mainstream rap, in that it is rap for the main stream, but it also technically isn’t, because just listen to it. This shit’s not right for the mainstream, and this effortless duality wedges the record sharply into the pop landscape. Whether or not the mainstream will embrace the record is almost irrelevant in the face of its subversive eccentricity. Regardless of sales, this is immediately and obviously the Neptunes’ signature work, the masterpiece no one predicted. In hindsight (again), it all makes sense: N.E.R.D., “Grindin’,” “Drop it Like It’s Hot,” all Pharrell and Hugo’s nerdy, artistic highpoints condensed, validated, made whole. Both basic elements of hip-hop production—that is, loops and percussion—are triumphantly perverted here, their successes intertwined. The loops the Neptunes use, which are generally created in the studio but are utilized like samples were a decade ago, create the horror-core tone of the record: the drowning choir of “Keys Open Doors,” the hiccupping accordion on “Momma I’m Sorry,” the morbid Blade Runner phasers barreling through “Trill.” Album centerpiece “Ride Around Shinin’” sounds like spoiled milk tastes in a bizarro world: good, horrifically so. The central sample chimes, probably a strum through the top of a baby grand, but the Neptunes venomously relish the dissonance of the final note by pushing the gain against the sustain’s natural fade; they let that shit churn for 3 and a half measures before looping it. The strum repeats for four minutes, building into the same abhorrent drone each time and creating a bright, grimacing tone poem.

In lesser hands, this would be dank, unlistenable stuff. Fortunately, the Neptunes ground these absurd, absurdist sample choices, converting the whole horrific loop-pudding into mere syntax for the album’s real focus, the percussion. The aforementioned “Ride Around Shinin’” uses clipped grunts like just another link in its drum sequence, and it’s that guttural human element that realigns the track’s sound beneath the dissonant chimes. The chops over drums on “Wamp Wamp” and “Ain’t Cha” are steel drums, making for drums-on-drums action; the accordion wheezes of “Momma I’m Sorry” sound like gasps between the ticking stutters of the Neptunes’ programming. The beats pound, clang, click, and bang out a varied extrapolation of “Grindin’”; the loops are profound and bizarre, sure, but they’re just another tool in the percussive onslaught. Smooth, proto-Neptunean “Nightmares” is the only track where the drums are auxiliary, and it sounds blissfully pure after the 11-track sonic assault, like a glass of water after a three-week vodka binge.

Reportedly, the Clipse would accept nothing less than the Neptunes’ most punishing production. One pictures them in the studio, Pharrell exhaustedly looking up after hours tweaking “Chinese New Year,” muttering, “Is this filthy enough yet?” and the brothers Clipse glaring glassy-eyed back at him in answer, Pharrell then sighing and returning despondently to work. It’s easy and fun to think of the Clipse this way, like arch-villians that intimidate us into being fans, and one can’t shake the feeling that this “mega-evil” appeal has something to do with the internet’s (our) ferocious alignment with them. But that’s a bit too Snakes on a Plane in-jokey; within the context of the record, they’re as Swearengen-sympathetic as they are Darth-deplorable, and the semiotics ping across this barren wasteland of noise with the same veracity as the programming. Hell may well have no fury, but the Clipse ensure that the hell they have created is an invite-only affair; a population constructed around their worldview that makes them default heroes, despicable though they are. Because, Rap Album of the Year or not, let’s not elide the sexism, the violence, the whatever else; the women who populate this world are either money-hungry whores and bitches or memories of loves lost to the game. Or, you know, their mom. It’s the same sexist logic that motivated the world of noir or detective stories, and it should be recognized as such. But even though Pusha and Malice revel in these things, they don’t assume, like lesser emcees, that these are talking points necessary for hip hop. Narcotics, misogyny, violence—they do all of it with a philosophical consistency, a cold, Chandleresque logic. You won’t find a sex joint thrown in as filler, you won’t get (as fun as it is) a track like “Kilo”—the sexism and violence they describe are sexism and violence as they exist, and not fabricated versions created to sell records. That doesn’t make it better, per se, but it does breathe life into the clichés of “coke” rap, forcing poetry from braggadocio, pushing out malice and fury much greater than simple nomenclature would suggest.

And since we’re talking about clichéd hip-hop iconography, Scarface at least bears mentioning. “Get ready to root for the bad guy,” ran that movie’s vaunted tagline, and this phrase, if anything, defines the Clipse’s surface appeal. But things run much deeper than that. Tony Montana is admired for being a rags-to-riches underdog (and for holding two machine guns at once), but the movie details how gaining the world lost him everything he held dear: his sister, the love of his family, his best friend, and eventually his life. Pusha tries to advise hustlers that, if for no one else, the game eventually leads to anguish for family: “Anything to keep Grandma from crying / Visiting while you behind glass awaiting sentencing / Because the judge says ‘life’ / Like it ain’t someone’s life.” But his later evocation of Scarface is telling: “Be like Sosa, not Tony.” Sosa, of course, ordered Tony’s death, and the message behind the line is that Tony is ultimately a toady, and in the Clipse’s world you are either the king or nothing—after all, peep that album cover. Montana fell afoul of Sosa because Montana wouldn’t do a hit that involved innocent lives. How’s that for moral simplicity with a complex psychological toll: any act of decency makes you dead, and the only way to get to the top is to be as ruthless as possible. Regret is a weakness.

Guilt, on the other hand, is something else entirely. Playing the game as ruthlessly as possible may get some out of the ghetto, but it’s part of what keeps others there. The Clipse understand perfectly what else is keeping them: “It’s like ya fly, but they’re clipping your wings / And that’s exactly why the caged bird sings / However you name it, the shame rings true / Seems to me reparations are overdue / … Bird crumbs will never do.” In this context, how much should we criticize them for reaching for the brass ring? Pusha and Malice are sober about the ramifications of what they do, but in the end even hardass Tony Montana held the high ground, sparing the lives of two kids. Clipse’s moral universe begins and ends with their interests, their ad hoc grab past those bird crumbs. Yes, “Momma I’m Sorry” and “Nightmares” offer proof that guilt is still a reality in that universe, that the brothers aren’t sociopaths. It’s just that they make guilt their stooge, finding a way to make it actually enhance their pleasure (“Dirty Money,” “Ride Around Shinin’”), then ridiculing the have-nots they left behind (“Mr. Me Too,” “Ain’t Cha”), all to distract them even further from their “Nightmares.” Catholicism, what: Clipse know all about guilt. They just replace a trip to the confessional with one to Milan.

So, while the Clipse survive on forceful, Darwinian principle, the spider web within their world is a device of glittering entrapment that surrounds the ideas of hedonism as a comfortable cul-de-sac and materialism as the only true obsession. Not only the rhymes, but the beats and rapping depict this webbing unremorsefully, both coldly and sensuously. The way the Clipse use machismo (and, yes, the corollary misogyny, which may or may not prevent people from feeling this) to position themselves as purveyors of virility in every venture should have a tangible impact on the psyche of the male listener. In Clipse men might see what they wish they could be, but also what they’re terrified they might become, and even what they might already be, deep down, beneath all their efforts to grow into conscientious, responsible men—men who could be good fathers and sons. But Hell Hath No Fury isn’t just harrowing world creation, because it also speaks to the reality of an American Dream realized at any cost. It is boastful yet scathing, exaggerated yet brutally honest self-portraiture that doubles as listener portraiture, because they’re selling us to ourselves, and that consolidated duality is used to push its music like the crack it is. Tyler Durden ain’t got shit on Pusha and Malice.