Friday, September 9, 2016

clipping. - Splendor & Misery Review

In 2014, clipping., Experimental Hip-Hop trio hailing from LA, dropped their self-titled megalith CLPPNG. The LP, which conflicted critics with a severely divisive Industrial edge, took an honest, exhaustive, and complicated look at gang life through a story woven by Daveed Diggs. It also situated William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes as Avant-Garde beatsmiths, curating looping mechanisms using chainsaws, gunshots, and alarm clocks. Join that with Diggs' background in the arts, from music to theater, culminating in his appearance on Hamilton, and you have a group that could be seen as tacky, try hard, and pretentious. Artsy kids constructing societal critiques doesn't usually bode well. However, with their recent EP Wriggle maintaining form in the most traditional sense the group has ventured in yet, many were expecting a shift towards more acceptable parameters. And then the concept of Splendor & Misery revealed itself and all bets were off. The press release read: "An Afrofuturist, dystopian concept album that follows the sole survivor of a slave uprising on an interstellar cargo ship, and the onboard computer that falls in love with him." With that sentence, clipping set course on a path that would simultaneously convince cynics of their stilted behavior while confronting their fans with their most perplexing album yet.

At just 37 minutes, Splendor & Misery is a blur. And yet, thanks to a puzzling layout that witnesses instrumentals, interludes, and freestyles rival actual tracks, clipping's third LP is easily their hardest to comprehend. Especially in a year where many have failed to be anything but conventional, even the often compared to Death Grips did so on Bottomless Pit, Splendor & Misery can be a swift punch to the gut for anyone planning on waltzing into expectations. The LP's initial track, 'Long Way Away (Intro),' reveals this by expelling Diggs' customary incendiary verse to backup duties. For fans, this is immediately off-putting, especially given the singing that occurs on the intro, likely taken from Diggs' theatrical side. Splendor & Misery entwines this thespian ideology numerous times on the LP, using background vocalists as full-blown hymn deliverers on songs like 'Long Way Away' and 'Story 5.' The juxtaposition between these Spirituals and clipping's Industrial is jarring, to say the least. At times, especially when it indulges for too long, the result can be ostentatious and empty (as seen on 'Story 5'). However, the subtlety of clashing sounds makes for some breathtaking moments, like when 'Break The Glass' transitions into the aforementioned track with some precarious Noise.

In terms of the concept, it's safe to clipping didn't hold back. The two lead singles, 'Air Em Out' and 'Baby Don't Sleep,' gave off the impression Splendor & Misery would be lacking in that department. And yet, as is evident, those two are the only tracks welcome enough to separation. Everything else permeates this space slave's story, including the production itself, which unfolds like a never-ending plot using seamless track transitions. The execution of said concept is another quandary though, frustrating even. On one end, concentrated efforts like 'The Breach' and 'All Black' unravel the quickly spiraling story, doing a damn good job at that, while pieces like the two aforementioned singles don't do all that much to fit in with their brethren. An acquired taste for sure, the breadth of interim tracks heighten the atmosphere, the mystery, and the allure, but don't do all that much to explain things. Unless I'm absent-minded, the romantic plot point hardly plays a role. However, it's gratifying to investigate, discover, and decipher the missing pieces. Just don't prepare to have all your questions answered.

As far as the production goes, Industrial plays an even bigger role, as the trio moves further away from the beat-centric sounds of CLPPNG and closer to straight up experimentalism. On CLPPNG or Wriggle, no matter how unusual the soundscape, there was still, for the most part, a beat to be found. A handful of full-length tracks here completely abstain from using traditional beats, instead focusing on that concept of Diggs, the character, using the malfunctioning equipment to rap alongside of. This is best seen on 'Wake Up' and 'Break The Glass,' as the barren world Diggs parses through would work better as a Rap Musical than a typical, fortified Hip-Hop song. This same notion is true for the interludes as well, daring to go further off the radar of intelligible Hip-Hop with tracks like 'Interlude 02,' which is entirely a repeated number station broadcast, and 'Long Way Away (Instrumental),' which seems like a fading 1920's ballroom sample. They bring a riveting, and slightly uncomfortable ambiance to the whole piece, even if their purpose isn't entirely known.

Fans of mine know how much I value creativity. There is no question Splendor & Misery has that in spades. Did it succeed by purely ousting my weakness? Not necessarily, as both the concept and the songs failing to join in come equip with their own batch of cons. For such a gargantuan concept, the project should've been longer, more fleshed out. And the lack of formal structuring does hurt some of these pieces, especially when Diggs is left to fend for himself. However, much like Death Grips, 2010's Experimental Hip-Hop purveyors, clipping is setting course to curate entirely new projects with each release. Abiding by much of the Industrial same rules, few songs, if any, sound remotely similar to what's present on their opus CLPPNG. From the heavy-handed 'All Black,' which warrants the six minutes given to it with a wealth of lyrical ideas, to the autonomous self-appraisal turned hymnic recourse 'True Believer,' Splendor & Misery finds itself admiring the beauty it constructed. Lest we forget the grand finale 'A Better Place.' With a synth factory that finds hidden melodies amongst the cacophony, and a character finally coming to grips with humanities fading importance, 'A Better Place' makes for Splendor & Misery's best track. In 2016, a year I've seen as weak in terms of artists pushing the boundaries, clipping's journey to the stars through the eyes of an escaped slave came at the right time, even if the flaws hold it back from greatness.

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