Somewhere in the twisted perversions of history, on a tea-stained divan in a dimly lit salon within some alternate dimension, H.G. Wells sat down with Edgar Rice Burroughs, Langston Hughes, and Igor Stravinsky to pen an epic space opera, set in the year 2016, starring an avatar of Kendrick Lamar, narrated by Thomas Jefferson.
The bit about Wells, Hughes, and their contemporaries never happened, but their hypothetical collaboration is very real, and it exists here, today, in our world. It’s clipping’s 2016 album Splendor & Misery, an industrial-rap space-opera composed entirely around high-pitched beats, Starman-style synth, black prison-yard ballads, and modern hip-hop pith.
Splendor & Misery narrates the flight of “Cargo #2331,” a slave who escapes his cell aboard an interstellar prison-ship and hijacks the vessel’s automated navigation systems, sending himself careening wildly into the void. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to #2331, the life support systems had failed every other passenger aboard the ship by the time of his mutiny, leaving him the sole survivor aboard an empty, autonomous vessel – spinning aimlessly into oblivion. The album opens with the “mothership reporting” in ‘All Black,’ an acerbic, coldly computerized verse-track focused on exposition and thematic philosophizing. Daveed Diggs plays the role of the mothership, communicating back to what is assumedly some sort of headquarters. Diggs continues on this narration kick for the rest of the album, assuming a dual-role as omniscient antagonist and apathetic observer – you get the feeling he’s not so much playing God, as he is inhabiting the O.S. on the vessel; he’s just blase enough about the circumstances to wax an air of non-bias, but over the course of the album, Daveed’s narrator builds a sort of sympathy for #2331, going from simply ignoring him to wishing him success on his flight.
The opera unfolds accordingly, with #2331 hoping-against-hope he’ll find some refuge, some safe haven to practice his religion, listen to his rap, and sing his praises in the void. But as Diggs raps on ‘Wake Up,’ “the chance that he ever reaches any place suitable to support life in his lifetime is pretty low, get low, get low.” Predictably, by the time the penultimate track ‘Baby Don’t Sleep’ comes around, things have gone very wrong for #2331.
It’s tempting to summarize and analyze the entire record, but that’s never the point of concept albums – they’re meant to be experienced, not elucidated. But therein lies the problem with ‘reviewing’ Splendor & Misery; it’s a concept album by a deeply conceptual group. clipping is known for pushing the envelope, albeit firmly within the confines of their presaged genre. They follow in the tradition of Busdriver and, the Mac-Daddies, Death Grips. Undeniably, clipping has found means of innovating the genre; they’ve composed hip-hop beats entirely out of gunshots, they’ve swapped the lo-pitch standard of beat-making for static and dog-whistles, they’ve incorporated influences from Ellington to Bjork to Andre 3000. clipping has managed to be both imitative and innovative at the same time; emulating the forefathers of experimental hip-hop while simultaneously building their whole style out of the more avant garde.
“YOU HAVE RECEIVED A COLLECT CALL FROM…”
“It’s clipping, bitch.”
“…TO ACCEPT THIS CALL, PLEASE PRESS 1 NOW.”
Even for clipping, Splendor & Misery is a bold step. It would be overly romantic to call it a great one, but maybe it’s, at least, a good one. It’s difficult to even say if clipping wants to go forward. Perhaps, more accurately, the want to go sideways – down, out, around – the Wonka’s elevator of experimental rap. It’s difficult to review any concept album, because one ends up reviewing the concept rather than the music. And the opera Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes (from Captain Ahab) have crafted is indeed enthralling. But the beauty of legendary concept albums, such as The Who’s Tommy, Titus Andronicus’s The Monitor, even The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, is not just that their ‘concepts’ were complex or interesting, but that they were all stylistic watersheds in music.
Consider OK Computer, which some have argued as a concept album if only because of its heavy ethnomusicological / literary influence. It’s considered one of the greatest albums of all time, due in part to its manipulation of a medium to convey a message, but not solely because of the message – arguably, the concept doesn’t even have a message, besides to interpret and deliver the picture of an emotional state. OK Computer subverted expectations, revitalized a dying genre, and introduced new technical elements into a musical style that many had believed, at the time, was exhausted. Splendor & Misery, as phenomenal as the concept might sound, forgets that a concept is ultimately only a means of conveyance. There’s nothing particularly nuanced, much less revolutionary, about the record, and it seems MC Diggs and Co. really did get so wrapped up in the headiness of their opera that they neglected some of the care they usually put in their music. Conceptually, Splendor & Misery is beyond anything clipping has ever done. Technically, and indeed musically, it’s probably no better than their debut, and certainly not as good as their sophomore mix-tape.
‘Air ‘Em Out’ is a slow, percussive jam, not feeling out of place on good kid, maAd city, or even Danny Brown’s Old. ‘True Believer’ blends the mournful soul of chain-gang ballads with Diggs’s plaintive, monotone recitation; arguably boasting the most “conceptual” lyrics on the album – the retelling of an Afrikanesque creation-myth for the space-age about three celestial brothers who fight over the cosmos – coupled with expositional dialogue about the the diegetic space slave-trade in Splendor & Misery. ‘Story 5’ rips into you with a powerful, baritone gospel choir, sounding equal parts dirge and celebration. ‘Baby Don’t Sleep’ is basically just a Busdriver song, but there are some much-appreciated Lynchian samples in there (Hint: Listen for the low-pitch hum that permeates through the Black Lodge). The final song on the album, ‘A Better Place,’ might unfortunately be one of the weakest – sounding weirdly like Diggs was citing 2 Chainz as an influence – but it makes a good-enough closing point:
“There must be a better place to be somebody else. Inside the mind of a man is a mystery…calls it a history. Are you ready to go yet? Let’s go.”
There’s no coincidence about the hefty Bowie influence on the record. He’s often touted as the master of concept-pop, with his Ziggy Stardust persona, his Major Tom saga, etc, etc… Diggs made a choice to invoke those same science-fiction themes to externalize, and thematize, a sense of alienation. Diggs has one obvious advantage over Bowie, however; he’s black. And while Bowie was primarily concerned with the alienation of the individual by modernity, by war, by technology, and by globalization, he was also concerned with his own alienation. Bowie made a career out of being a pariah – hell, he made an icon out of it. Diggs is already working with a lot more than Bowie, and it didn’t take him half a lifetime to build up all that ammunition – the narrative of an escaped slave, being the sole survivor of brutal conditions on a slave ship, flying alone through space in search of safety, is ineluctably powerful. There’s something that just works about the album – the praise hymns that #2331 sings to himself in the halls, the bible verses he quotes before meals, the “Kendrick’s control verse” he raps to the unsympathetic command console. It’s an inescapably black narrative, positioned within a fundamentally white genre. Science-fiction authors from Dick to Bradbury to Asimov, despite their disparate styles, shared a common thread; their whiteness.
The strength of Splendor & Misery’s concept comes from a subversion of the sci-fi genre, defined by zeitgeist themes of isolation, fear, and societal expulsion. All these themes take on a new candor when contextualized within a black narrative; escape and self-actualization in the face of hard-fought freedom. The album might be guilty of asking that old cliche: “Now that you’re free, what are you going to do?” – but atones for this by delving into the complexities of freedom-in-isolation. There are no easy answers, especially not after revolution. In hijacking the vessel, #2331 becomes the adjudicator of his own fate. The album deftly begins after the hijacking – the excitement and the thrill of newfound freedom is already fast dissipating at the outset of Splendor, and perhaps herein lies the impetus behind the title. #2331 is free from his literal chains, but he’s still trapped in a dead vessel – a metaphor that just might extend past the ostensible Ellisonian critique of a society ignorant of black Misery. Splendor’s concept is great because it asks a non-essentialist question; how does a black person self-actualize in the void? in the absence of oppression, rather than in the face of it?
Composition-wise, Splendor & Misery’s best feature is Diggs himself. Since starting clipping a few years back, Diggs has certainly branched out. He’s slated to produce a TV show about a rapper-turned-mayor for ABC, has guest-starred on multiple episodes of Law & Order: SVU, and oh, yeah, he’s Thomas Jefferson:
Having heard Diggs in Hamilton before checking out clipping’s first two albums, it was a little jarring to hear the voice of Thomas Jefferson rapping about gun violence. In some ways, Diggs on Splendor & Misery feels more comfortable to me; something about the breakneck speed of Diggs’s rapping is deepened by the power of high-concept lyrics behind it. He makes the album his own, as always, leaving perhaps even less of the spotlight to the electronic compositions of Snipes and Hutson than he did on midcity. He embraces the punchy, invigorated lilt of Compton rap, if only in style, not origin. A Kendrick name-drop only serves to compound the effect of his pursed-lip, tongue-heavy style. Comparisons to Andre 3000 are not warranted, and as much as I love Chance, there’s only one rapper this year who “sound like Andre.”
Splendor & Misery won’t be up for any Grammys anytime soon, not that that’s any indication of merit, but my point is the album will, much like clipping’s other work, drift under the radar. This is a shame. Not because the music is innovative, or the composition revolutionary, or the style unique; nothing you hear here can’t be found in superior albums by the likes of Busdriver, Abstract Rude, and Open Mike Eagle. But despite all the audiophile hatred toward the term “concept albums,” they remain a rare treat, especially those as bold as Splendor & Misery. Diggs challenges science fiction, its whiteness and its stolidity, to an operatic rap battle. He almost certainly loses, but it’s a fight worth seeing.