clipping. – the experimental rap trio consisting of vocalist Daveed Diggs (whose day job involves winning Tony Awards and co-writing & starring in excellent indie dramedies), and producers Jonathan Snipes (whose day job involves scoring low-budget horror movies) and William Hutson (whose day job contains having an actual doctorate in experimental music which immediately makes me way more unqualified to talk about his music than I already was) – do not do things by halves. Their first album proper for Sub Pop kicked off with a minute-long blast of painful high-pitched static that Diggs’ 500-miles-a-minute rapid-flow had to actively fight against. Their second record was a hard-sci-fi concept album about a slave rebellion, artificial-intelligence love, and madness.
Their music has been nominated for more than one Hugo Award. They are proudly ambitious and, considering that all three men have absolutely nothing to gain from making such out-there music, that is really admirable and leads me to root for heavily for the project. It’s just a shame that their music on-record is so often… let’s be charitable and say “highly uneven.” At their best, the trio’s deconstructionist tendencies, with Snipes & Hutson finding thrillingly off-kilter sounds to create brilliantly uncomfortable beats for Diggs’ verbose and detailed raps, produce some exciting unique blasts of energy in the rap game.
At their worst, the production ends up prioritising noise and experimentation at the expense of the song and often listenability whilst Diggs over-raps to a distracting degree – the rapping equivalent of guitar players who worship Joe Satriani because they wrongly assume show-off technical wizardry is the true measure of a great guitar player. But throughout it all, I have remained adamant that clipping. have a great album in them, those highs showcasing demonstrable talent for bangers and unsettlers without sacrificing their idiosyncrasies. There Existed an Addiction to Blood, their third official album, is not that great album but it comes maddeningly close to being so. Blood sees the trio making a shift towards a subgenre I’m amazed they hadn’t actively focussed on before: horrorcore. Not horrorcore as in the kind that Eminem bum-rushed the mainstream with at the turn of the century, all juvenile provocation and overblown violence (although Diggs does indeed find many ways to describe your gruesome demise across the 11 proper tracks that make up the album), but horrorcore in the same way as Geto Boys and Gravediggaz, utilising horror-based imagery and styles as a framing device for social and political allegory. The haunting “He Dead” pitching racial profiling as a never-ending chase against some supernatural force with the punctuating titular phrase getting more chilling each time it’s invoked; “La Mala Ordina” violently bursting rap’s longstanding infatuation with mob imagery to detail excruciatingly the grizzly undercurrent of unsparing violence; and whilst “The Show” is nominally about a dark web red room, Diggs’ constant invocation of the second-person directly implicates the listener for their touristy perverse fascination with such music and the pain of others. Snipes and Hutson mine from sources as far-flung as ambient field recordings, industrial power electronics, and the soundtracks of John Carpenter for their sonic soundscapes and the results can be genuinely unsettling, most especially “Club Down” in which the pair digitally manipulate a wash of blood-curdling screams to create this constantly rising and ever-cresting torrent of noise which would fit in perfectly backing a snuff film or a mid-80s video nasty. Within the horrorcore aesthetic, the pair seem to have found a natural home for their noise leanings and more abrasive tendencies – since, after all, blasts of oppressive noise contrasted with eerily quite ambience are indeed anxiety-inducing – but for every genius production choice (the absolutely cavernous “He Dead”), there are still too many instances where they indulge in noise for noise’s sake.
The aforementioned “…Ordina” is a collaboration with harsh-noise artist The Rita and at about the three-minute mark the track starts to unspool and collapse right before the listener’s ears, like a VHS tape frying in the cassette player, before deteriorating into brick-walled digital distortion. It’s a cool, ghastly effect and a fantastic way to end the song, only this part lasts a further two minutes which is about a minute longer than it takes for the track to become kind of painful and grating to listen to. Disjointed experimentation also plagues “All in Your Head” where the industrial production on the first half, the apocalyptic gothic choral trance vibes of its second half, Diggs’ creepy two-syllable crawl for the verses, and guest Robyn Hood’s demonic preacher schtick all seem to have been beamed in from entirely different songs. Most egregiously, an otherwise pretty-tight 50-minute record gets a 90s CD-style overextended outro track in the shape of “Piano Burning,” an 18-minute extract of Annea Lockwood’s 1968 piece which involves, you guessed it, setting a piano on fire.
You may be curious as to what a burning piano sounds like and the answer to that question in this instance is “not a whole lot.” Likewise, Diggs’ raps are often breathless and he can put together snappy lines that standout for their detail or clever wordplay (“snitches shit bricks then quick to talk Pig Latin”), the specific narrative detail required in horrorcore providing a natural home for his rap style. But just as often as he can smash a song out of the park, he can also get too cutesy with his wordplay in a manner which becomes just plain corny – the otherwise excellent “Club Down,” which is where that last quote comes from, spends much of its runtime being forced to recover from Diggs dropping a Winnie-the-Pooh reference of all goddamn things (“tut tut, it looks like rain”) and then chasing that with a Singin’ in the Rain shout-out. And whilst it is technically impressive that he can rap in varying time signatures, his sense of flow can get lost in the mire due to trying to squeeze a few too many extra syllables into his rhyme scheme or from trying to show off that technical virtuosity at the expense of stories worth investing in.
“Story 7,” the latest in the recurring “Story” series, especially sees him indulge all of his worst instincts. But when everything clicks, when the production finds the perfect off-kilter horror twist instead of just devolving into experimentation’s sake and when Diggs reins in his cornier and excessively wordy tendencies, the results are electric and some of the best rap music of the year. “He Dead” is properly haunting and makes a show-stealing usage out of guest Ed Balloon. Post-intro opener “Nothing is Safe” is an absolute suffocating banger, invoking the spirit of Assault on Precinct 13 as it builds from a single piano key and muted three-note synth bass into an explosion of synthetic gunshots with Diggs masterfully painting the picture of an utter massacre. “Run for Your Life” features the album’s best production, the first two verses having the beat constructed from the sounds of distant passing cars so barely perceptible that Diggs is almost rapping a capalla and with the instrumentation only arriving as the killer’s car creeps closer (really selling the mood of being stalked by a remorseless assassin), and former Three 6 Mafia affiliate La Chat’s mocking guest verse being cold as ice. “Blood of the Fang,” meanwhile, is one of the best rap songs of the year, a violent black revolution anthem namedropping dozens of radical activists against an El-P reminiscent club throng, soulfully accentuated by a sample from the 1973 vampire film Ganja & Hess which gives the album its name, and capped off by a truly jaw-dropping turbocharged final verse. There Existed an Addiction to Blood is easily the group’s best full-length project to date, the highs being higher than ever and the lows not being as much of an active chore to listen to – well, perhaps aside from “Piano Burning” which I highly doubt many people are going to voluntarily listen all the way through more than once. Those highs are truly excellent, the sound of clipping. finally evolving into the best possible version of themselves, but they seem frustratingly unable to sustain that level of control for more than a few tracks at a time, with the last third of the album aside from “Blood of the Fang” taking a real nosedive in quality. Sitting with this record for the past few weeks has seen it alternately grow and sink in my estimations from my frustrated first listen, every part that ended up eventually clicking being counterbalanced by a new part that stopped working for me. Nevertheless, it’s a solid record on the whole, those standout moments doing a lot of the heavy lifting, and it’s the strongest evidence yet that clipping. are definitely capable of making a truly great record someday. That day is not today, but hopefully that day shall come.