Sunday, 3 August 2008

Pop Just Ate Itself: Clipse release a turd

Every year, come December, bloggers compile lists of their favourite albums of the past twelve months. And every year, without fail, rap-loving bloggers start to argue about whether mixtapes count as albums.

Those who would exclude mixtapes from their imaginary competition insist on the need for a level playing field. They find one in the legal and commercial constraints governing the creation of albums. Mixtapes' illegal use of un-cleared samples, borrowed beats and previously-available songs, they argue, makes it impossible to judge them on equal terms with commercial releases. Defenders of mixtapes argue that market forces and intellectual property rights provide an arbitrary and unhelpful framework by which to judge works of art. Mixtapes, they argue, offer artists freedom to express themselves without the need to gratify record company marketing departments; they also allow the use of samples that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive.

An aesthetic argument runs in parallel. Critics argue that mixtapes are often uneven, hastily thrown together, and poorly-mastered, and that they offer instant gratification rather than anything of lasting value. Supporters counter that, originality notwithstanding, mixtapes are frequently more coherent and satisfying than albums. Why bar Wale's excellent Mixtape About Nothing from an end-of-year list on the grounds that it was given away for free? Why make apologies for Nas' patchy Untitled when his N****r Tape stands as one of the best releases of his career?

After all, the idea of an album as a 'statement' or free-standing original work of art only developed in the mid-sixties: its gold standard has always been a certain type of predominantly male, white rock music. Hip hop, with its traditions of freestyling and DJing, has more in common with folk music, where performers constantly adapt, re-interpret and add to existing tunes and lyrics. Using the idea of the 'album' to judge rap distorts our appreciation of the art-form: for instance, many consider Kool G Rap one of the all-time great MCs, but he rarely appears on lists of great rap albums, let alone great albums.

None of this matters, of course. Artists will continue to make music, and will, on the whole, struggle to make a living doing so. Bloggers will continue to bicker and list. My opinion? Of course mixtapes aren't albums. They're mixtapes. The clue's in the name.

None of which makes me any the wiser about what the hell's gone on with the new Clipse album, The Clipse present the Re-Up Gang. Is it a mixtape? Is it an album? One thing's for sure: it's bloody awful.

The Virginia duo's series of mixtapes, We Got It 4 Cheap vols. 1-3, saw them adding vocals to familiar beats, frequently improving upon the originals. On Present the Re-Up Gang, they reverse the formula, recycling verses from Volume 3 that originally accompanied tracks by the likes of Shawty Lo and B.G., fitting them instead with original beats. If new rhymes over old beats makes a mixtape, what about new beats under old rhymes? Further muddying the waters, Present appears to have secured a commercial release, via Koch Records - a label that operates in a grey area between albums and mixtapes, offering artists one-off album deals, together with an unusual degree of creative control, low overheads, fast turnarounds, competitive royalty rates and an allegedly relaxed approach to sample clearance. Finally, the logic of claiming to 'present' the Re-Up Gang is baffling. The Gang is made up of the Clipse plus Philadelphia rappers Ab-Liva and Sandman, who featured heavily on all three mixtape volumes, and were given equal billing with the Clipse on the third. What is the point of this album?

None of this would be a concern if Clipse's round-about manner of creating original music was at all successful. Instead, the recycling process has diluted any distinctive qualities the group ever possessed. Fulfilling the dictum that a free market tends towards homogeneity and mediocrity, Clipse have hit the golden mean of turgid drugs-and-money-rap: something like a G-Unit album, but with slightly sharper metaphors and less memorable beats.

When not damping their once-chilling drug-talk with dead-eyed celebrations of wealth, Clipse use the album to air rap's dullest and most self-indulgent theme: record label politics. This mind-numbing tendency, a favourite of the world's most boring rapper, 'Regular' Joe Budden, has become so prevalent that prissy complaints about altered release dates and threadbare promotion budgets have even tainted the latest album by the Roots - an otherwise creative and intelligent group. Clipse's attempt to make a fast buck by recycling lyrics and rush-releasing a sub-par album renders such complaints insincere. The apparent ease with which they reconcile money-talk and self-pity while expecting fans to pay for work vastly inferior to that given away for free six months ago raises questions about their integrity and judgement.

It's interesting that one of the album's recycled verses features threats against Lil' Wayne, another successful mixtape rapper. Where the Clipse's heavy release-schedule has seen them creeping steadily towards mediocrity, Wayne's constant output has seen him embrace eccentricity. The resulting commercial album - though entirely uneven - has already sold over two million copies. Clipse Present the Re-Up Gang would do well to equal G-Unit's Terminate On Sight, which has yet to sell a tenth of that.

No comments: