Clipse’s “Grindin,” the first single from Lord Willin’, sounded like it came from the future. It arrived, for some reason, on a VHS tape at my college radio station. We watched that video over and over again because everyone loves grimy crew’d up rap videos, but also because YouTube didn’t exist yet and it was the only copy of the song we had. And it was funny to see Pharrell acting hard. And who was Pee Wee Kirkland? When “Grindin” finally hit the airwaves, it felt like it took the MTV censors two weeks to catch all the coke references.
A couple weeks later I ordered two copies of “Grindin” and two copies of Nelly’s “Hot In Herre” (from Amazon, for some reason). I was DJing a lot of house parties then and I remember needing those records. But I never felt that way about the full-length though, and I only ended up buying it when it cost five bucks on vinyl, the same price as buying the single of “When The Last Time.” Lord Willin sniffed platinum sales and produced some classic singles, so it’s hard to call it underrated. But at the time it didn’t feel important to me.
That’s probably because I was spending a lot of time listening to this new cat named Kanye (“nah two syllables, not like ‘cane’”), who was making these crazy beats out of sped up soul samples and rapping way too honestly about being the token black guy working at the Gap. Also there was a really experimental, bonkers Outkast double album that everyone had an opinion about. There was a Scarface album that brought tears to my eyes. There was a lot of emotion going on in hip-hop. Lord Willin’ felt like it came from a different era, when the shadows of both Biggie and Pac’s murders and September 11th made everyone want to keep their heads down and just make party records. It felt conservative. Maybe I was just sick of the Neptunes?
Lord Willin’ was phenomenal and has only gotten better with age. It was definitely a relic in one crucial way: it continued the long-honored tradition of rap albums with one producer. And while it was hard to escape the Neptunes in 2002, Lord features some of their tightest beats. Amid accusations of laziness and repetition, Pharrell and Chad tweaked their formula into melancholy jazz (“Virginia), dirty funk (“Young Boy”) and brass band stomps (“Cot Damn”) as needed. It’s all patently Neptunes, but it never gets boring. Also “Cot Damn” might be the best Pharrell hook of all time.
Pusha and Mal’s lyrics might have felt one-note in 2002 next to Fabolous’s polished hustle and compared to an earful of Andre 3000 space poetry. But what felt like cold, relentless coke talk in 2002 now sounds like cynical pragmatism. The brothers Thornton have similar voices and use the same tone to narrate their bleak home turf on “Virginia” as they do talking about their rims on “Grindin'”The highs aren’t that high and everything seems to be in God’s hands anyways.
It’s been a very strange ten years for Clipse since 2002. Industry shake-ups led to label issues which led to the We Got It 4 Cheap mixtapes. Which led to a second act as hipsters darlings opening for Modest Mouse. Which led to a discussion about whether hipsters would buy rap albums. Which led to a lot of schadenfreude when Hell Hath No Fury kind of tanked. There was another album that wasn’t very good. Malice found God. Kanye found Pusha T and he can be heard on “Mercy” alongside 2 Chainz and Big Sean coming out of every car this summer.
But I still play “Grindin’.” It’s hard to think Clipse would ever do better than Lord Willin’.