Clipse have never heard of the sophomore jinx.
“I didn’t think nothing of it,” says Malice. “Then I kept hearing it, and kept hearing it and it kept getting in my mind: Maybe we can’t do it. Maybe that’s just how the game works. Maybe it’s something that I didn’t know of or whatever. But it didn’t plague us at all.”
“I was like, ‘What do y’all mean? We make records,’” adds Pusha T. “I don’t know. I’m pretty sure it happens, but that was just more of an incentive. I don’t even believe in it.”
It’s a good thing that Virginia-based brothers and rappers Malice (Gene Thornton) and Pusha T (Terrence Thornton) never heard of the dreaded curse. The annals of music history are filled with one-hit-wonders. And it would be a shame if their critically lauded debut, 2002’s masterful, gold-selling Lord Willin’—which entered at No. 4 in the Billboard 200 and No. 1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart while producing the instantly classic, Top 10 hit “Grindin’”(recently acclaimed by Blender Magazine as one of “Greatest 150 Hip-Hop Songs of All Time”)—were to renege on its promise of introducing lasting new voices and a new paradigm to hip-hop’s orthodoxy. Their new album, Hell Hath No Fury is every bit as adventurous as their inaugural LP: wickedly crafted rhymes that walk the tightrope of guilt and glee as experienced by conscientious drug dealers; avant-garde music tracks out of time and space that rock like a player’s ball held in a damp basement.
Make no mistake, with Hell Hath No Fury the Clipse, along with producer and mentor Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes, have created an album of grooving introspection, bouncing escapism and swirling remorse even more nuanced and body-shocking than the lamentations of their first album. Their growth is most evident on songs like “Mama I’m So Sorry.” Slowly roasting with sliding horns, the track houses the shame that still resides in the brothers from their days of moving narcotics as a way of life. “‘Mama I’m So Sorry’ is basically an apology for being so superficial and into all the little different things that’s not the most important s*** in the world,” says Pusha. “Just owning up to it, like, ‘That’s how I am, that’s what I’m about and hopefully I’ll grow up and turn into something better before it’s too late.’ It’s an admission of guilt.”
Even “Ridin’ Around Shinin’,” a celebratory ode to the highlife which sports a magic harp that sounds like and army of crystal dice rolling on a diamond floor, is gilded with doubt. “That’s the hustler’s anthem,” says Malice. “It describes the everyday street cats trying to come up, trying to blow, what their aspirations are. If you do have it, if you’ve blown up or whatever the case may be, it’s just your thought for that day: ‘All I wanna do is ride around shining while I can afford it/Plenty of ice on my neck so I don’t get nauseous/Float around in the greatest of Porsches/Feel like a Chuck Wagon cause I’m on 12 horses/And the three behind mine, they be the clique/ So much ice in their Rolies, their s*** don’t tick, man/Winter through the summer, care less what it cost me/ While I’m shoveling the snow man, call me frosty lover.’”
On “Studyin’ Y’all” Pusha asks the pointed question: “What’s all this talk of the sophomore jinx?”
Clipse met Pharrell Williams in Virginia Beach in 1993 through a mutual friend. Having moved to Virginia from the Bronx in the early 80’s, the brothers had melded their Northeast sensibility with their rural surroundings to form rap styles unheard. “We’ve been fans of hip-hop—just recognizing what was different—from back in the days,” says Malice. “The real lyricists like Kool G Rap, Large Professor, Big Daddy Kane. We always followed the dudes who were really into their lyrics and had patterns.”
Impressed, Pharrell took the brothers under his wing and formed a working friendship that saw many a false start before the release of Lord Willin’. States Pusha, “At first I used to write a million freestyles, sending them off to mixtape DJs, only to hear the tapes and be like, ‘Man, why ain’t my freestyle on here?’ But the mixtape game was oversaturated. If you weren’t from the Roc [Roc-A-Fella Records] or a New York-based artist it was almost impossible to break in. That’s just how it goes. We don’t live in New York, so we don’t really know what go on. We just deal with what’s going on here in Virginia. And then it was like, ‘Well, if it ain’t going to be that way, then we’ll just concentrate on these records. Do it the OutKast way.’ I don’t think I ever heard them on a mixtape. Even when Dre [Andre 3000] was spittin’ ‘My heart don’t pump no Kool-Aid/Jump and you’ll get two-sprayed.’ So I just figured like maybe that ain’t our world.”
The years of frustration led the crew deeper into themselves—a burning place where civic pride became fuel. With Virginia an untested ground for hip-hop until the late 90’s (with breakthroughs of the Neptunes along with Timbaland and Missy Elliot), the Clipse set out to prove that Virginia was for rhymers as well as lovers. When the group surfaced with “Grindin,” a vow to the streetlife bolstered by something that sounded like “Big Beat” with Tourette’s Syndrome, the world took notice. Though Lord Willin’ was a thorough follow through, it was two years ago. In hip-hop, you’re only as good as your last hit and the fans are always quick to ask, “What have you done for us lately?”
The answer to that question is Hell Hath No Fury. Produced entirely by the Neptunes, Hell Hath No Fury is a work of art that’s a testament to an old school ethos of hip-hop: the synergy between producer and artists distilled into an hour’s worth of conversation. And having the best production team in hip-hop at your disposal isn’t a luxury that’s lost with Clipse. “I’m ignorant when it comes to production,” admits Pusha. “I couldn’t personally break down any of them tracks and say, ‘Yo, it’s only 5 sounds in it.’ I don’t think I ever said, ‘Yo, you need to make the drums hit harder.’ I just know what sounds hot, but I can’t say ‘Pharrell, the drums are cracking or the hi-hats are extra-crispy.’”
“I’m glad we got the Neptunes,” adds Malice. “The beats are their department. They do it, they lay it down, then I come and do what I can add to it. When I hear it, I already expect it to be fire.”
“It’s either gonna be how we get it is how we keep it or we don’t like the beat because it’s not for us,” says Pusha.
“The thing with Clipse is either they like it or they don’t,” says Pharrell. “They’ll either take it or they like it and they’ll know what it is but it ain’t for them or they don’t like it. It’s one of the three.”
This has led to Clipse passing over tracks that have become bonafide hits for other stars (i.e. Jay-Z’s “La-La-La”), in addition to snatching tracks before they even left the studio. “For the first album, we had all the time in the world,” confesses Pusha. “Beats were getting done, verses were getting done. Pharrell might come in with all intentions of doing a Jay-Z record, but it ends up being a whole new Clipse record. And it didn’t matter. We were just running with the time.”
“The first album was leisure,” continues Malice. “We were searching for deals, nobody was picking us up. So you’re writing all the time and hoping someone picks you up or whatever. But with this album, we had been on our time. I thought after we toured, we were gonna take time off and do the album, which is exactly what we did. I’m thinking, Take some time of, get your mind right, write at your leisure. No. When it’s over, when you’re finished touring, now you’re in the studio writing. That’s pressure to me. Like, You have to do it again.”
With the pressure on, the Clipse have done it again with Hell Hath No Fury. It’s not a sophomore jinx. It’s not a comeback. It’s the next chapter in an untold story. “This album is gonna put the nail in the coffin,” says Pusha. “On the first album. We were 16-bar spitters, mixtape rappers. This time we got more flows and got more conceptual with our storytelling. Now it’s like, This is a song. You gotta evoke some type of emotion other than, ‘Damned that’s a spittin’ motherf***er.’ Girls don’t care if you spit, if you that nice all the time.”
“I found that you have to believe in your flows and what you’re saying and you really have to feel a vibe,” says Malice. “Everything I write about, I put myself in a real life situation that I’ve had and build from that perspective. And that’s when you can tell it’s really coming from somewhere. As far as trying to use your imagination to write, it doesn’t work that way for me. We called the album Hell Hath No Fury because it’s continuation of Lord Willin’. We’re basically saying ain’t nothing gonna be as vicious as this album right here.”
“We never really worried about coming back as big as ‘Grindin’,” says Pusha. “That wasn’t the criteria. The criteria is always to be different. As long as you doing something different from what you hearing out there musically, as long as it sounds different, you already making your own lanes. That’s all we try to do.”