At it’s core, hip-hop has always been about storytelling. Unfortunately, in the past couple of decades, the genre’s focus has been taken over by braggadocio, sex and flashy beats.
With their latest album “Splendor & Misery,” Clipping plans to steer rap back to its roots while doing a bit of experimentation on the way.
Often labeled as “noise-hop,” Clipping combines the noisy production of William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes with the lyrics and voice of Daveed Diggs.
Don’t go into “Splendor & Misery” looking for an album full of bangers. While it does have it’s catchy moments – “Air ‘Em Out” and “Baby Don’t Sleep” – this record is here first and foremost to tell a story.
The story follows Cargo #2331, the sole survivor of a slave revolt on an intergalactic cargo ship.
The album is made up of three distinctive styles, each adding to different aspects of the story. The meat of the narrative is delivered through a set of songs that sound more or less like typical Clipping fare, noisy with a double-time delivery from Diggs. The backstory is delivered in the style of traditional slave songs, and a first-hand account of the story can be heard in the two “Freestyle” tracks from the point of view of 2331.
The story begins in the second song, “The Breach.” The scene is set on the cargo hold of the ship, where a “member of the cargo” begins to show a spike in vital signs. This track is told from the point of view of the ship’s on-board artificial intelligence as it describes security protocols for the event of a breakout. Diggs’ breakneck delivery is accompanied by an ambient beat that fantastically emulates the quiet and grimey environment this song is trying to convey. Sirens blare as 2331’s escape has begun.
The next track, “All Black,” is once again from the point of view of the A.I. This time it sends a message to the ship’s crew, repeating “Warning: mothership reporting.” Toward the end of the song, it is revealed that the A.I. is sentient and determined to aid 2331 in his escape.
From here, what unfolds is a story about isolation, loneliness and race which raises questions about consciousness and humanity’s scale in the universe. It’s an absolute ride to experience as it unfolds, so no spoilers from here on out.
Instrumentally, “Splendor & Misery” isn’t as noisy as previous Clipping releases, but that’s not what the band is going for on this record. Each song’s beat sounds completely different from the last as they depict a new chapter of the story dealing with new themes. The two “Freestyle” tracks sound like old recordings of 2331 rapping to himself as he reflects on his life as a slave, his escape and the meaning he’s found in current rappers’ – specifically Kendrick Lamar’s – lyrics.
The other songs set the scenes of 2331’s preparation for hypersleep, the A.I. pleading for him to wake up and 2331’s eventual acceptance of his fate – aimlessly drifting through space forever.
In the past, Diggs has rapped about sex and drugs. This massive lyrical shift to crafting a literal space opera is in part thanks to his roles as Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in the wildly popular broadway show, Hamilton.
The influence Hamilton has had on Diggs is heard most clearly in the “Long Way Away” tracks and “Story 5” as he ditches rapping for singing, often as part of a full men’s choir. At the first few listens, these tracks may seem out of place, but after some close listening they keep the album grounded in reality as they make connections to real-world slavery and help Diggs’ Afrofuturist vision feel as real as possible.
Before this record, Clipping had already cemented its place as one of hip-hop’s most important experimental acts. The addition of “Splendor & Misery” to its discography makes Clipping an even greater force in the world of underground hip-hop.