Referencing label tumult as a part of the Clipse narrative may have become played-out months before Hell Hath No Fury was released, but really, label tumult is the Clipse narrative. You’d be hard pressed to find a rap act that has had its career screwed over more by the major-label system than the brothers Clipse. In 1999, they recorded an excellent debut, Exclusive Audio Footage, a cinematic trip through slinging dope and living with the fear that life is short and cheap, that was shelved by Elektra after lead single “The Funeral” tanked. Then they recorded Lord Willin’, a bonafied hit (thanks to the classic “Grindin’”), before being banished to label-shuffling purgatory for a few years. The bulk of Clipse’s career has been spent battling labels, which couldn’t recognize what they had on their hands, to just release their music.
Even though Pusha-T says, “Music’s been nothing more than a self-made prison,” during the second line of the opening track on Clipse’s third LP, Til the Casket Drops, Clipse are finally in a healthy label situation, receiving a seven-figure bonus from Columbia last year. Only problem is that now, Clipse have nothing to rail against. Til the Casket Drops runs the gamut from jocular to boastful, from celebratory to (occasionally) self-reflective, minus the acerbic, paranoid, weary dope tales that made Clipse the “pioneers of the coke rap.” Clipse have always straddled the razor-thin line between their and Jim Jones’ boasting street sagas, and disappointingly, here they too often cross over to Jimmy’s side for a few bad attempts at a hit single.
Since the drop, Clipse’s fortune has been intimately tied up with the fortunes of the Neptunes, who produced all of Clipse’s first two (three, technically) albums and eight of 13 tracks here. Back in 1999, when Clipse were set to launch, being in a harness with the ‘Tunes was as close as you could get to a sure-fire commercial guarantee. But in 2009, Pharrell (I’m assuming Chad Hugo sat this one out) is content to step on every beat, chorus and verse he can, trying to be something of a featured player in a time when calling Pharrell in is practically a downgrade for any artist. He squawks “yeah” throughout “I’m Good,” and he tries to approximate some 8-bit videogame hype on “All Eyes On Me,” without question the worst Clipse track ever. “Life Change,” with its clanging synths, cacophonous ad-libs from what sounds like dozens of over-dubs of Clipse, Kenna and P, presents perhaps the hip-hop’s first answer to the Books, if the Books liked to make teeth-clenchingly abrasive hip-hop.
But Clipse aren’t the same old Clipse here, either. They clearly have the pressure of Columbia weighing on them (real or not), striving for hits and toning down the terror and the visceral rhymes in favor of trite stuff like “I’m Good,” “Showin’ Out” and “Doorman,” and a general lightness that removes what set them apart in the first place: their grittiness. They used to do stunning, narrative-based songs about trying to hide their coke dealing habits from their grand-moms; now they call in Keri Hilson to do hook work on some really terrible stuff. The new modus operandi for Clipse is spelled out in “Champion”: “I used to think life was a bad bitch and a bad car/ Nah, life is hanging with your kids watching Madagascar.” Growing up isn’t easy, especially in hip-hop, and you can’t expect Clipse to be coke-obsessed and pissed the hell off all the time. But still.
Aside from the “Grindin’”-lite boom of “Popeye’s (Popular Demand),” which features a curious verse about Lebron James and a returning to form Cam’ron, and “Counseling,” a go-go-ing head-knocker that is Clipse’s best club jam since “When the Last Time,” the real revelation on Til the Casket Drops is rising producer DJ Khalil. Khalil produces the Kanye-featuring “Kinda Like a Big Deal” (perhaps the most understated boast track of all time. Big deal? Kinda.), as well as “There Was a Murder,” a vivid tale about snitches that positions Clipse as dancehall artists, and the hazy “Footsteps.” It’s as good a production run on a single album for any producer this year. It’s on this trio that Clipse sound like their old selves — energized almost inversely porportional to how uninterested and uncommitted they sound on the Neptunes tracks.
I suppose you can’t really fault Clipse for falling off a bit; the guys have been at their career for nearly 20 years (they’ve been working officially since ’92). But given the track record Clipse have maintained through this decade with their other two albums and three mixtapes (I’m not counting the official Re-Up Gang album, and neither should you), this is a fine album, but it’s still a letdown, plain and simple.