I’m gonna be real up-front about this. Splendor and Misery, the third full-length release from Los Angeles-based experimental hip-hop group clipping. is a space opera. And it’s most likely going to be in my top five albums of 2016.
Hey, don’t click away, dammit! Hear me out here.
clipping. is a group with a long history of making heady, weird rap music. The producers, Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson, are both students of experimental and noise music. Meanwhile, their MC, Daveed Diggs, recently found Broadway fame as a principal lead on the breakout hip-hop period musical Hamilton.
As clipping., the three use field recordings, noise samples and Diggs’ machine-gun rapping to create some of the most bizarre and deeply immersive rap music in the game. In the past, they’ve released a song in which the principle sample is the rattling of ball bearings. They’ve got another track where the beat is mostly composed of gun sounds. On their 2014 release, CLPPNG, Diggs performs throughout the whole album without using the first person point of view, eschewing a staple of hip-hop lyricism. They have a long history of doing really weird stuff, is what I’m getting at.
Even so, it’s easy to see why a casual listener or perhaps even a longtime fan of the group might balk at the pitch for Splendor and Misery. The album’s narrative follows the sole survivor of an uprising on an interstellar slave ship. Most of the songs are from the perspective of the ship’s artificial intelligence, who falls in love with the escaped slave. It’s a story that deals with injustice, nihilist existentialism, the madness that comes from isolation and a whole lot of hard sci-fi. Even as far as concept albums go, this is above high-concept. This is “higher than these motherfuckers claiming is they purpose,” to quote Diggs on this album’s lead single, “Air ‘Em Out.”
Speaking of quotes, I asked a friend of mine to describe this LP and he said, “They’ve made a Pink Floyd record.” And you know what, he’s absolutely right. Much like a classic Floyd project, Splendor uses sparse instrumentation and various ambient noises as the core of its musical composition. Also like Pink Floyd, it’s a record that you really need to listen to from start to finish. There are one or two tracks that stand on their own, but many of the cuts on this album lose impact when removed from the context of the work as a whole. That being said, in its entirety, this album is a grand adventure through space and time.
The first thing anyone who listens to Splendor and Misery will have to get used to is its instrumentals, which may turn certain listeners away from the start. Using drawn-out bass rumbles, eerie synths, whirs, clicks, thumps, straight-up pew-pew-pew sci-fi noises and, on one track, even a freaking theremin, Snipes and Hutson create a soundscape that is varied and expansive even while all the separate elements of it feel very distant from each other. In this way, it mirrors the very deep space that the story takes place in. There’s even a couple full-on gospel tracks on this record, in case you weren’t confused enough already.
The instrumentation is sparse to the point where it’s barely there, and this makes Diggs’ raps come across a lot like spoken word on a few tracks. clipping. has always toed the line between hip-hop and performance art though, so it’s not a hard format for me to swallow. Especially not when you let yourself get drawn in by Diggs’ hypnotic vocal cadences. He has a finesse with language that would make most literary authors smash their antique typewriters in envy. Despite the density and utter lunacy of the subject matter, he delivers the album’s narrative in a way that is clear enough to follow.
From a compositional standpoint, the rapping and eerie instrumentals are intriguing all on their own. But it’s the story weaved throughout this head trip that makes it a really engaging listen.
The story of the escaped slave becomes more depressing with every listen, such as on the track “All Black.” In the track, Diggs speaks of the slave’s prolonged bouts of stasis sleep as he runs from his captors and mentions that these periods of rest occur “while ship’s clocks count millennia.”
It quickly dawns on you that by the time this character is introduced, he is already hundreds of millions of miles from his home and everyone he knew is dead. This knowledge weighs on the character himself. So does the fact that he sleeps for literally thousands of years between each star system he visits. Throughout the course of this album, the existential dread resulting from these realizations causes the slave to dive deeper and deeper into madness as he slowly loses his grip on reality and struggles to find reasons to keep flying.
As I mentioned, this album is a bit weak taken track-by-track. The lone banger on this record, the aforementioned “Air ‘Em Out,” is an intergalactic trap anthem constructed around high-octave synth hits in lieu of the usual bass-heavy focus.
It’s also crammed full of obscure sci-fi novel references, which tickles my inner nerd to no end. Other tracks are musically interesting, like the haunting gospel dirge of “Long Way Away.” Without the framework provided by the other tracks, they come off more as musical curios than anything else. Whether this is a deal-breaker for you will depend on your attention span, but if you can’t manage to sit still and listen to the same album for under 40 minutes, you probably already closed this tab and started looking at cocktail recipes on BuzzFeed.
Splendor and Misery is one of those releases you will either come to love or instantly hate. I recommend giving it a try all the same because it’s so radically different and inventive when compared to the majority of 2016’s releases. I don’t foresee longform story albums becoming a routine format for clipping., but I’m glad they made this one, because it’s the kind of record you can listen to forever and get something new out of it every single time without fail.
clipping.’s video for “Air ‘Em Out”:
CU Independent Arts and Entertainment Editor Thomas Roller also hosts the CUI music podcast, AMPED, which you can listen to here. You can contact him at email@example.com.