“The name refers to a specific type of distortion in digital audio, wherein the tops and bottoms of a waveform are cut or ‘clipped’ off, introducing harmonics — it’s a pretty nasty, unpleasant distortion and the first thing you learn in audio work is to avoid clipping at all costs. Ironically, we’re very meticulous about avoiding clipping in our recordings.”
– Jonathan Snipes, clipping.
The above quote is clipping. for you in a short, pithy encapsulation. The California rap trio draws on a range of rebellious genres — most evidently gangsta rap and severe electronic and tape music — but mixes them with a scientist’s precision. It is the illusion of chaos — chaos carefully curated, like Rockwell doing Pollock.
By their own account, clipping. make heavily referential music. Each track on CLPPNG, their Sub Pop debut, is a Frankenstein’s monster of lyrical content and sound. Producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes collage and crib ideas from the histories of electronic, experimental, and hip-hop music, while vocalist Daveed Diggs assembles his songs out of the complete compass of traditional rap images and tropes. In his words, “[clipping.] is the most intentional project I’ve been a part of.” Each song on this record comes across as a studiously arranged diorama — “here’s a club scene; here’s a street scene” — with both the striking level of detail and the eerie sterility that comparison implies.
As upfront as clipping. are about their process, they insist that their music is not a meta-critique of rap. If anything, it is a meta-celebration — this is simply their highly allusive take on a genre they love. But regardless of how you choose to listen to their music, CLPPNG is an excellent, beautifully-executed record.
CLPPNG is a direct continuation of what the group started on Midcity, an album they self-released last year. The cover of Midcity was a tangle of black audio tape over a white background, presumably a nod to their influences. The cover of CLPPNG is a chain link fence — again over a white background — which has been cut in the lower right corner, perhaps illustrating the kind of stories they like to tell. Both albums are bookended in the same way: each opens with a short track called “Intro,” featuring a swift verbal knifing by Daveed Diggs over some of the most inhospitable sounds found on either record. And both albums conclude with a direct reference to an experimental music forefather — on Midcity it was Steve Reich, here it’s John Cage.
On CLPPNG, the songs that come between these bookends are more diverse, fully-realized, and at times accessible than those found on Midcity. The second track, “Body & Blood,” combines an industrial beat with a story straight out of a torture porn horror film. Snipes and Hutson’s production complements Diggs’s lyrics nicely, with buzzing electric saws and punishing noise. Later, on “Dream,” Diggs floats above solid ground with three hazy verses atop an ambient soundscape of tolling bells and chirping birds. The group embraces Auto-Tune on “Tonight,” a sleazy club track about drug-fueled decadence and clumsy, cartoonish lust; and on “Ends,” Diggs rhymes about inner city hopelessness and the allure of a Bonnie and Clyde finish, over a sparkling, propulsive instrumental.
Snipes and Hutson’s production is quite varied on this record, and they utilize an array of interesting sounds. (I won’t try to source those sounds, but for a peak into their methods, take a look at this piece about the making of “Bout.That” from Midcity.) On “Work Work,” they use rapidly pinging metallic and crystalline tones that remind me of Autechre’s “VI Scose Poise,” and on the hook, they add a low bass and a slick, Beverly Hills Cop synth. The track “Taking Off” features a vocoder effect reminiscent of Laurie Anderson and a noirish late-night saxophone solo for good measure. And on “Get Up,” Hutson and Snipes repurpose the nagging sound of an alarm clock for a barebones beat that turns surprisingly cinematic by the song’s final hook.
Hutson and Snipes have both composed music for visual media in the past, so it shouldn’t be surprising that clipping.’s music sometimes takes on a filmic quality. The songwriting of Daveed Diggs — who, in addition to rapping, also acts in theater and film — is often just as visual. On “Inside Out,” he delivers three of the best verses on all of CLPPNG. On the first, he sets the scene, describing a variety of daily activities on a single city block. It brings to mind a film like William Wyler’s Dead End, in which all the action happens in a small, enclosed area, on a single day. We see street vendors, kids playing football on the blacktop, Nation of Islam men (“the black suits sell bean pies”), sidewalk preachers (“the cream suits shout soapbox”), and pimps and prostitutes (“the lime green suits send angels to the streets with Botox”). The third verse is something out of Law & Order, as detectives survey a crime scene and gather evidence. But it’s the middle verse that’s most impressive: Diggs registers the crime itself simply by cataloguing a list of mundane details inside one of the homes on the block. It starts innocently enough: we see a pouch of Capri Sun, an orange couch, a comic strip clipping stuck to the refrigerator door, and What’s Happening!! playing on the TV. But soon the verse turns: an ice cube is slowly melting in a glass of whiskey, the telephone receiver is dangling from the wall, the front door is standing wide open, and now there’s the sound of a car peeling out from the driveway.
The following track, “Story 2,” is a breathless, virtuoso character study of a former arson whose own home is burned to the ground, either by a jilted lover or a victim of one of his past crimes. And on “Dominoes,” Diggs pulls a neat trick (one I suspect has been done in rap before, although an example is escaping me): in the first verse, a child listens as an elder imparts advice (“real men don’t freeload;” “trust your fists before toasters;” “don’t talk to pigs;” “don’t let that ho run you”); then, in the final verse, that child seems to have become the elder, watching as his own offspring gets into schoolyard scrapes and remembering how it used to be. The title “Dominoes” works in at least two ways: it’s an old person’s game, but also an apt symbol of cause and effect, of a culture perpetuating itself.
There are multiple ways to take the word “clipping,” too. We know the name was inspired by the production term, but it’s also a fitting moniker for a group with such a pronounced cut-and-paste aesthetic. On the final track, “Williams Mix,” which serves as a coda, the trio makes that aesthetic literal by inviting UC San Diego’s Tom Erbe to help create an abstract piece patched together from hundreds of snippets from the preceding 13 tracks. It is a collage made from collages — a pointed statement of conceptual intent.