Til the Casket Drops
Brothers Pusha T and Malice, known collectively as the Clipse, are hip-hop oddities. They're an unusually low-profile pair of rappers, but when they put out a record, you're bound to hear at least half of it on the radio, blasting from car stereos and shaking club dance floors, which is partly due to fellow Virginians the Neptunes producing both their previous albums, 2002's Lord Willin' and 2006's Hell Hath No Fury, and over half of their third, Til the Casket Drops. The Clipse follow drug rap archetypes pretty closely, but they do so with greater vigor and conviction, and with less clutter and fluff than anyone else. When they rhyme about their innumerable friends in jail, their years spent dealing crack, the people they've lost to violence and drugs, there's rarely a moment you doubt that they're speaking from experience. It's when they start talking about how they spend their newfound wealth (cars, women, ice, etc.) that they lose sight of what makes them weirdly unique—and there are a couple more of those moments on this album than on their last.
The decision to open up the production on Casket worried some fans, but it adds sonic variety, which is always a good thing. Plus it helps keep Pharrell from taking over too many of the relatively shy MCs' songs, although he still does that on "I'm Good," one of the record's low points. The other producers, DJ Khalil, Chin and Sean C & LV, contribute some of the highlights, like the latter duo's haunting opener "Freedom," with its obscure, eerie vocal sample and mournful electric guitar. Pusha kicks the album off with a phenomenal verse: "All apologies I bear the cross, I wear the bling/we in the same group but I don't share my brother's pain/not to confuse/I was sentimental all the same/I just don't feel nothin'/I'm numbed by the will to gain." From that bitter and unusually confessional first song—the Clipse's best to date—the first half of Casket is absolutely stellar, save the aforementioned Pharrell takeover (and even that has its moments). "Popular Demand (Popeye's)" with a great guest appearance from Cam'ron, and "I'm Kinda Like a Big Deal" with Kanye West delivering a typically lazy verse, are the kind of grand, delightful and perfectly crafted rap singles that make Clipse records so worthwhile. The lyrics are tight and clever, the beats are huge and catchy, and this is how great hip-hop should sound.
After such a strong start, "Showing Out" seems inferior, but Malice's amazing last verse redeems a throwaway guest appearance by Yo Gotti. The Clipse have often borrowed riffs, rhythms and rhyme styles from reggae—most memorably on an epic group remix of their break-out single "Grindin'"—but over DJ Khalil's funky percussion wizardry on "There Was a Murder" they take that motif to new heights. "Doorman" rounds out the amazing first half of Casket, and it would be a generic Neptunes track (low, rumbling bass, sparse electronic blips) if not for a trumpet sample used to perfection, which seems threatening and foreboding, or maybe on the verge of segueing into a Mariachi band number. Those first seven tracks make for the best opening suite to a rap album in years—thank the hip-hop gods that the Clipse don't do skits—and it's not surprising, though no less disappointing, when they misstep a few times afterwards.
The second half of Casket is hit-or-miss, with an equal number of memorable and mediocre songs. "All Eyes on Me," with its breathy Keri Hilson hook, is a pretty solid attempt at creating a club banger of the same caliber as "When the Last Time" from their first album. It's not quite that good, but still plenty enjoyable. The two closing tracks pick up the slack some, and mark a major shift in tone from the early-going gloom, the middle tracks' boasts, and the generally fatalistic perspective hanging over the rappers' albums (see their record titles). Pusha and Malice get uncharacteristically heartfelt and downright optimistic on the closer "Life Change." Malice admits: "Even when laughing I can't explain the hurt/knowing I can't change the world in a verse/even to myself I'm feeling my screws loose/but how can I deny what I know to be true/when I ain't have a clue should have viewed it as a gift/now I see what they mean/ignorance is bliss." It's an unexpected and welcome moment of self-examination from a pair of rappers who've made their name by specializing in a very effective, brazen and gripping style of drug rap. We'll have to wait another few years to see how it plays out on their next record, but here it provides a satisfying response to the first track's fears and apprehensions. And with two or three fewer songs, it would make Casket a thematically unified and perfectly structured classic album. As such, it's easily one of the best rap albums of the year, and another great record from a duo that always cooks up superior product.