Death Grips represented a new high water mark in hip-hop’s embrace of rock at its most abrasive. While neither Hill and Morin’s grinding industrial beats nor MC Ride’s assaultive verbal curb-stomps were entirely without precedent, Exmilitary and the albums that followed felt like something new and exciting in a genre that continually grows by accretion. Even more than that, it felt like the fulfillment of a promise, one made by a brash young Public Enemy in the late 80s and cavalierly renewed by dälek a decade later: that one day a true lovechild could come out of the sticky-sweet surreptitious encounters that noise and hip-hop had been enjoying on the DL.
While comparisons between Death Grips and clipping. are inevitable (and well-deserved), the manner in which the two acts bring the disparate elements of their sound together couldn’t be more different. Despite the Merzbow-esque metallic static-storm that interjects itself in the middle of emcee Daveed Diggs’ flow on “Intro,” clipping.’s beats are more often defined by a queasy absence than by the kind of sonic overload characteristic of the Grips. Rather than beating the listener down with pounding percussion and layers of screeching samples, clipping. often leaves Diggs and their guest emcees alone and exposed, spitting verses over eerily sparse assemblages of seemingly unrelated rhythmic figures.
Credit for the most distinctive elements of clipping.’s sound is due to the two men behind the knobs: noise artist William Hutson (a.k.a. Rale) and Jonathan Snipes, formerly the man behind L.A.’s brilliant Captain Ahab. While fans of Ahab expecting the same sugar-rush of techno-deconstruction might be taken aback by these jagged sound collages, people who appreciated the noisier aspects of Snipes’ work will have no trouble locating his fingerprints on such puckish embellishments as the screwed vocal hook from “Loud,” the last censorious bleep on “Overpass” that stretches out into a warbling tone, or the blasts of shrieking noise that erupt like schizophrenic outbursts from eldritch but otherwise subdued sonic backdrops.
Diggs manages to hold these snarling, gaseous things together with the gravitational pull of his nimble wordplay. He somehow finds a rhythm in even the most abstract of his collaborators’ beats and, on his best tracks, is able to conjure warped and demented visions that could give the Odd Future gang a run for their money. Diggs’ chronicle of depravity in “Killers” creates the ideal atmosphere to showcase the coiled spring of tension that is the song’s chorus, while “Story” follows a cop who, traumatized after responding to a grisly car accident, goes on a violent bender. The latter track is so wild and unexpected that one can’t help but wish that Diggs had indulged his darker impulses a little more freely throughout.
The rest of the songs on Midcity trade in your standard hip-hop hyper-masculinity. To his credit, Diggs mostly keeps things interesting by peppering his flow with unexpected references (“Your average tollbooth phantom/ Clock around my neck”) and tongue-twisting rhymes (“Littlest pup figure he bigger enough/ To scrap for the meat with a Rott/ Eat in the streets till it rot.”). Nonetheless, the bro-tastic quality of some of lyrics (such as TiVO’s verse on “Get.It,” in which he says he’d like to Instagram a photo of himself receiving oral sex with his ”Thumbs up to the camera, so these hoes know they’re invited.”) feel kind of gross.
Given Snipes’ penchant for skewering masculine posturing, whether through Dadaist parodies of hip-hop boastfulness or by recording an entire album from the perspective of a teenage girl, it feels like a missed opportunity to challenge or undermine the typical “bitches and drugs” ethos so pervasive in rap. Only the final tracks, “Real” and “Outro,” seem to offer a counterbalance . The former (featuring backing vocals from ex-Gowns member and The Mae Shi’s Ezra Buchla) plays like a checklist of status symbols until reaching the chorus: “Fuck fame/ Keep it one hundred.” The latter track is a 10-minute loop of Diggs saying “Get Money,” repeated like a mantra that gradually morphs and distorts itself in and out of senselessness.
clipping. are one of those rare groups that not only seize upon a concept from the wider musical milieu, but actually advance it in a meaningful way. Midcity is exciting stuff, not only because forces open the doors even wider for risk-taking and experimentation in hip-hop, but because of the skill and energy that it displays in doing so. The best tracks match the madcap brutality of their beats with a deft, unhinged lyricism that’s every bit as refreshing.