March 3, 2005
One of the things I loved about Pitchfork’s Intonation Festival last year (conflict of interest, yes) was the dazed look that certain bands would get in their eyes when they stepped onstage, middle of the day, to thousands, like they had no idea that they were this big, like all of a sudden they were something close to famous and they had no idea how it’d happened. Something like that happened with Friday night’s Clipse show at the Knitting Factory, but it was more complicated. Clipse have never been huge, exactly, but they’ve definitely been popular: videos in constant rotation on the MTV Jams Channel, feet up on lawnchairs on Pharrell’s yacht, one single that absolutely redrew the rules on how rap singles could/should sound. But they’ve also spent about three years in label purgatory, and that fate has destroyed rappers more popular than Malice and Pusha T ever were. It didn’t matter that Pharrell was threatening to never again work with Justin Timberlake if Jive didn’t get their paperwork looking right; they still hadn’t put out any new music since the Iraq war began, and stuff like that tends to eat away your swagger. But of course they were releasing music; they just weren’t doing it legally. I don’t quite understand the mechanics of the mixtape industry, so I don’t know if they saw any money off the Got It 4 Cheap series, though I do know that my mixtape guy in Baltimore told me that the first installment hadn’t sold shit, even though Baltimore dudes love anything that namechecks The Wire constantly. I wonder how aware they were that Volume 2 was the most critically-acclaimed mixtape of the year, that it had white blog dorks shaking their heads in wonder, or whether they thought they were just tossing these things out into the void.
Even if they knew how much people still loved them, Malice and Pusha didn’t know it know it until they stepped onstage at the Knit. They’ve performed to bigger crowds, certainly, maybe nothing but bigger crowds. But I’m not sure they’ve ever stood in front of a room so packed that late arrivals had to squeeze into the back of the club like it was a rush-hour subway train and seen everyone there rapping the words of obscure mixtape tracks back to them. Word is they’d been nervous before the show, hadn’t performed in a while, didn’t even know what they were going up for. So there was a triumphant exhilaration when they figured it out: Pusha onstage pointing out individual crowd members who knew all his words, Malice standing outside the club after the show handing out huge stacks of Volume 2 before jumping into a waiting Benz. Pusha said something about being glad that “y’all know rap is about lyrics, not charisma” like he did’t even realize that he has both in spades.
He’s the obvious star of the group, Pusha, smirking, moving with total assurance, miming a skipping rope during the “two diamond jumpropes, my neck do the double dutch” line. Before the show, friends said that it probably wouldn’t actually be any good: too much stage rust, too short of a set, hypemen and shitty sound keeping anything from catching fire. The set was short, and the sound was bad (mics way too quiet), but the voices were still clear and strong and deadpan, just like they are on the records. And the closest things to hypemen were Clipse’s Re-Up Gang proteges Sandman and Ab-Liva, two decent Philly mixtape rappers who become almost great in the presence of monsters like Pusha and Malice, whose evolution into fearsomely intense free-associators has been a joy to watch.
And it wall all about the mixtapes; the group began the set with “Pussy” and my favorite single of the decade so far, “What Happened to That Boy?,” and it ended with the “Cot Damn” remix and (duh) “Grindin’,” but everything that came in between came from Got It 4 Cheap. That’s how it should’ve been. No matter great some of the stuff from Lord Willin’ remains (and the “Ironic, the same place I make figures at / That there’s the same place they used to hang niggas at” line from “Virginia” still gives goosebumps), Got It 4 Cheap 2 remains their greatest triumph, the street mixtape elevated to high art. Riff Raff already wrote the definitive appreciation of Vol. 2, so I don’t want to dwell too much. But Nick thinks the achievement was in all the cold and eloquent coke-talk, and my favorite line from the tape (this week) has nothing to do with that; it’s Malice’s, from “Mic Check”: “So literary with it, you could tell by how I write / The boy’s such an author, I should smoke a pipe / Rocking the ascot, the coupe with the glass top / Seventeen-inch rims, making the ass drop.” You don’t hear rappers bragging about their writing too often, but they should; Pusha and Malice are as in love with words as anyone whose work goes out in books or magazines instead of CDs, and the way he swings from that to car-talk in a split second without breaking stride or even slightly altering the grain of his voice is just dazzling. Someone who can bend words and meters like that shouldn’t go away just because a record label decides he doesn’t fit in with their seasonal marketing plans, and lucky for us, this time he isn’t.