It’s strange to think that Pusha T, after nearly 20 years of rapping, is still a few months away from releasing his first ever solo album. It’s even stranger to think that Push had to leave Clipse, one of the absolute best hip-hop duos of all time, and link up with Kanye West before he could be truly appreciated as a rapper.
Clipse released three albums in the 2000s, and produced the classic We Got It 4 Cheap series of mixtapes as the Re-Up Gang. The albums are all standouts, but only the first album went platinum – the excellent Lord Willin’. If Pusha T and Malice didn’t invent “cocaine rap” with that album, they damn near perfected it. Rappers have spent a full decade trying to replicate that sound – if you’ve heard Pyrex, scales, zip lock bags or fiends referenced in your favorite rapper’s song, you can go ahead and thank Clipse. Without them, there’s no Rick Ross, no Young Jeezy, and no flood of imitators and pretenders to the throne. Without Clipse, there might not be a Pharrell Williams: the Neptunes and Clipse have a very symbiotic relationship, and certainly helped each other’s rise.
Clipse is gone now, and with Malice now, uh, “No Malice,” who knows when they will ever release another song again. So with “BLOCKA” hitting the streets this week, fresh off Pusha’s appearance on stage for VIBE last week, and with My Name Is My Name coming next year, I present my ten favorite Clipse songs of all time.
This is actually the second single off Lord Willin’, but deserves to lead off simply because it remains the definitive Clipse song. If you listen to Push and Malice from some of their early, unreleased tracks, you’ll notice they sound… almost like The Chipmunks. Hearing them rap about guns and drugs is almost cartoonish, as if the words don’t belong in the mouths of babes. But by Grindin’, they’d arrived. This song is all about base/bass (double entendre, thank you). “I’m the neighborhood Pusha/Call me subwoofer/cause I pump bass like that Jack/On or off the track.” Pusha says he sells drugs, and dammit, I believe him. This song launched the Neptunes as much as it launched Clipse, and the popping hook contrasted to the down low rumble of the bass line is still one of the best ever created.
When The Last Time
Another Neptunes track, but for a song that is somewhat generic. It feels like anyone could have recorded this, right? It’s still clever, Malice and Pusha still give it there all, and it actually did better on the Billboard 100 than the superior Grindin’, but in retrospect, this could have been a, like, Chingy song and no one would have known the difference. Still, it’s the best of that early 2000s, poppy, clubby kind of hip hop that was pervasive at the time. You can’t fault them retroactively for doing something that was popular, but part of the appeal of Clipse was that they were so good and yet so wholly rejected by mainstream rap fans for so long. Now you can’t turn on the radio without hearing Pusha T on something, and his pop sensibilities probably emanate from this track.
What Happened To That Boy
Maybe the best ever, the only drawback being that Birdman aka Baby aka Unnecessary is on this one. Although this is easily the only song where bird noises have been deployed effectively. This was on Birdman’s album, but let’s be clear: this is a Clipse song. They dominate, they drip from your headphones, they feel like they might rampage through your iPod and beat up the wimpy rap songs you’ve got hidden away in some long forgotten playlist. “Euhck, another soul lost/had to make his shirt match my ox blood colored Porsche” – he killed a guy, and STILL mentioned his car. Fantastic. I still sometimes feel bad for That Boy – whatever happened to him?
Guns ‘N Roses
This song appeared on the soundtrack for the Denzel Washington flick Training Day, with production by the Neptunes. The beat is evil, down low, and features a twanging bass guitar that almost sounds like it’s taken from the James Bond theme song. The subject matter – guns and roses, Mafia poses, briefcase money – it sounds real coming from them, and the realism is so important to Clipse. Rick Ross is as big as it gets, but the fact that the man has invented his entire drug dealer persona has to count against him in some way. For Push and Malice, it’s just assumed that they know exactly what they’re talking about, and that they live what they say.
It gets tricky here, because Re-Up Gang has remixed so many excellent beats that it’s hard to separate the original from the Clipse version. The verses here were later reappropriated for a “Flashing Lights” remix, but “Pharmaceuticals bought me charms like the jewlers jewels” is one of the best opening lines of all time, so it needs to be mentioned. There are several other Re-Up songs that are fantastic – “Ultimate Flow” is a Notorious BIG remix full of incredible lines, and I’m sure Biggie would have been proud. “Only know two ways of gettin’/Either rap or unwrap.” Yikes.
Momma I’m So Sorry
Clearly, my favorite pairing is Clipse and Neptunes. The lead single from Hell Hath No Fury was “Mr. Me Too,” which was absolutely everywhere in 2006, but it didn’t actually crack the top 50 on Billboard. It’s a great song – “Pyrex stirs turned into Cavalli furs/The full length cat, when I wave the kitty purrs” is just… so multilayered and awesome. But on this song, Clipse manages to name check Miami Vice about 30 times while sometimes rapping over an accordion beat. The degree of difficulty is much higher.
Off of E-40’s album Breakin’ News, a sort of… pre-hyphy but decidedly Bay Area sound with two great verses and, of course, awesome E-40 fast talking/vocal inflection/E-40ness. Also E-40 mentions Secret Squirrel and that’s just great. Let’s mention “Hot Damn” here as well, which was technically a Neptunes song off the collaborative album Clones, but is still very good.
I’m Not You
This is like the Little Mermaid meets Scarface, with the long keyboard chords and the steel drums. Jadakiss blesses this with a great verse (“Imma take a lotta shots, A.I. style”). Really, the best aspect of this song is that there’s no chorus to speak of – Clipse, Jada, Styles P, and Roscoe P. Coldchain just rap in a cypher and then the drums come back in, allowing the verses to breathe.
Ugh, Lord Willin’ is so good. Fabolous was a little more pop-centric at this point, but everyone just brought it to this track. It’s playful but terrifying – these dudes will just smile in your face while they blast you.
“I’m back by popular demaaaaand.” I know the new Pusha T album is a guaranteed classic, but… man, I just hope Malice and Push get back in the studio just one more time.