The Anniversary

Lord Willin’ Turns 20

Star Trak/Arista
Star Trak/Arista

Usually, these anniversary pieces are about history. Even with great albums, an anniversary piece is more about context than anything else. What were the conditions that led to people writing and recording these songs? What happened when they came out? What happened with the careers of the people who made the record? What about the other records that this record influenced? That kind of thing. Every once in a while, though, these anniversary pieces have to take on a different tone. Sometimes, I write these pieces simply because I can’t drive around to all your individual houses, throw the CD in your faces, and start ranting about “Motherfucker, do you know how good this fucking thing is?” This piece? This is the second kind.

At this point, the Virginia Beach duo Clipse exist within the realm of rap myth. If you want to reduce an aging music critic to a gibbering, gushing mess, ask about We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 2 and the mid-’00s Knitting Factory shows. Hell Hath No Fury is, by popular consensus, one of the coldest albums of its decade. Malice’s exit from the rap universe — his religious awakening, his name change to No Malice — has granted further tension to the white-knuckle raps of his youth. Pusha T has maintained his relevance and burnished his legacy. Drake probably shudders involuntarily every time he hears the man’s name. Right now, this very minute, a tiny voice in the back of Drake’s head is like, “What’s Pusha going to say about my house album?” Just a few months ago, Pusha put out one of the point-blank best rap albums of 2022. These days, when Clipse do get back together — something that’s been happening increasingly often — everyone rightly regards it as a big deal.

Even with all that history, “Grindin'” still stands tall as the biggest moment in the whole Clipse saga. It’s the reliable show-closer, the song that still bulldozes its way into DJ sets, the canonical anthem of what we once called the coke-rap wave. That familiarity has robbed “Grindin'” of some of its power. By now, the song has a little bit of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” syndrome. It’s an important record, and it still sounds amazing in the right context, but it’s not necessarily something that anybody ever needs to hear again. In its moment, though, “Grindin'” sounded like an intercepted transmission from a hostile alien planet, a klaxon-call warning that violence was on the way.

“Grindin'” was the first Clipse track that most of us ever heard. When the video first made the rounds, the world already knew the guy with the trucker hat and the lowrider bike. The Neptunes had been making spaced-out next-level future-funk tracks for a couple of years, and Pharrell Williams was never afraid of the camera. (In the “Grindin'” video, as in the videos for most of those Neptunes hits, P’s Neptunes partner Chad Hugo simply lurks in the back of the frame, half out of focus.) If you knew Pharrell’s face, maybe the beat wasn’t even a surprise, but that didn’t mean that it wasn’t utterly hypnotic. The drums sounded like a symphony of cafeteria-table banging, and other than a single word, the hook was just a spooky oscillating sound, like electronic bubble-wrap being popped. It was new, but rap radio in 2002 was an embarrassment of that same kind of newness.

But the other guys in the “Grindin'” video were another story. These two brothers with cold eyes and contemptuous demeanors were talking about selling cocaine with clinical, undisguised pride. Pusha and Malice weren’t the first rappers to build songs out of their drug-trade memories. Jay-Z had made himself a pop star by depicting himself as a kingpin. Master P, the Cash Money Millionaires, and the Lox were all doing something similar. But all those other rappers would talk in regional slang that sometimes felt like code. You had to know what they were talking about to know what they were talking about. Clipse put that talk right out front, making it bald and hard and obvious. On “Grindin’,” they turned their history with that profession into a statement of intent: “My weight? That’s just as heavy as my name/ So much dough, I can’t swear I won’t change.”

In a Complex feature years later, Pusha T talked about how hard it was to write to the “Grindin'” beat. He couldn’t find the pocket, and he had to keep rewriting and scrapping his verses. But he knew the beat was special before he even heard it. Pharrell had called Pusha and told him that he’d better come straight to the studio or Jay-Z would get that beat: “I’m very territorial about Neptunes’ production. I’ll leave text messages, voice messages, and emails of pure disgust and disrespect when they give away records that I feel like I should have had.” In that same article, Pusha talks about how he spent months pushing “Grindin'” before it even showed up on my TV screen: “People don’t understand that I did every $5,000 show with every drug dealer in the United States of America behind that record… It was an underground cult kinda thing. It was like, ‘Come to Detroit, five racks, wear a bulletproof vest’ and ‘come to Milwaukee, where you need armed security.'”

“Grindin'” wasn’t an underground cult kind of thing for long. The record crashed the pop charts, a place where cold-blooded drug-dealing records didn’t often appear, and it climbed as high as #30. I spent that summer working at an unventilated warehouse, and the best moments of the day were the ones where “Gridin'” would come on the radio, when the hustle of putting disposable cameras in tiny mailing packages would suddenly feel a whole lot more cinematic. At night, when I wasn’t in that warehouse, “Grindin'” seemed to be blaring out of every passing car window. The song was so big, so resonant, that it threatened to overshadow the album when the album finally arrived.

It shouldn’t. Lord Willin’, the Clipse album that will turn 20 tomorrow, is a whole lot more than “Grindin’.” The big hit might be the blueprint, but Malice and Pusha used that album to plant a flag, to build a whole world out of granular and specific drug-trade discussion. Clipse played the game by the circa-2002 rules. They had club songs and girl songs. They rapped alongside the stars of that moment, whether those stars came from the South or the New York metropolitan area. They made the most of their access to the Neptunes, the production duo that was running things at the time. But Clipse also made everything brighter, sharper, and harder than it had to be. They made you feel like you were right there with them.

Clipse seemed to arrive fully-formed, but they had a backstory. Malice turned 30 a few days before Lord Willin’ hit stores. He’d been rapping in Virginia Beach since long before Virginia Beach became a hotbed for rap and R&B production, and he’d known Pharrell since before Pharrell ghostwrote Teddy Riley’s “Rump Shaker” verse. Malice had served in the Army, become a father, and done his time in the streets. Malice’s younger brother Pusha had been making music for a long time, too, usually under the name Terra. In the late ’90s, when the Neptunes were just starting their ascent, Pharrell helped the duo get signed to Elektra, and they’d recorded a whole album, 1999’s Exclusive Audio Footage. But lead single “Funeral” had tanked, so Elektra had never released the LP.

Exclusive Audio Footage was heavily bootlegged for years, and it finally went up on streaming services a few months ago. It’s a fascinating listen. Malice and Pusha were already ferocious rappers when they recorded it, and their styles were a little further away from each other. Pusha, in particular, raps in a higher, more nasal pitch. They’re both louder and hungrier, nothing like the icy and calculated rappers that they would become a few years later. The Neptunes beats are just as powerful, and a few of them would end up in other artists’ hands over the next few years. It’s a very good album, but it’s a rough draft. Lord Willin’ is the finished product.

After Elektra dropped Clipse, Malice dropped guest verses on the Neptunes’ N.E.R.D. and Kelis records, and Pusha toured Europe as Kelis’ hypeman. Once the Neptunes got their Star Trak imprint set up at Arista, they brought Clipse over with them, and the duo was ready. On virtually every Lord Willin’ track, you can hear the Neptunes trying things — loping and cartoonish old-school funk on “Young Boy,” steel-drum accents and off-kilter synth-whirrs on “I’m Not You,” marching-band honk on “Ego.” Malice and Pusha match the energy of those beats, and they prevent the record from ever sounding goofy through sheer force of will.

That was the way those Clipse records worked. The Neptunes’ spacey, hard-plastic tracks had little of the gutbucket bounce of Mannie Fresh’s Cash Money records, and they had none of the blaring intensity of what, say, Swizz Beatz and Dame Grease were doing at Ruff Ryders. But you had to take Clipse seriously because of the shit that Malice and Pusha were saying: “Hey, I’m one of the greats, I can’t lie/ I mean, great to the point I’m concerned I might die.”

A little while ago, the nerdier corners of rap Twitter had fun discussing the question of whether Clipse should count as a Southern rap group. The great thing about that question is that there’s no clear answer. I mean, there is. Clipse came from Virginia, and they loudly repped Virginia at every available opportunity. Virginia is the South, so Clipse are Southern. But Virginia is not the Deep South, and Malice and Pusha weren’t even born there. Both brothers were born in the Bronx, and that’s where they lived when they were kids, before their family moved to Virginia Beach. They didn’t have Southern accents, and they brought the hyper-focused wordplay of that era’s New York mixtape rappers, a tendency that the brothers attribute to all the time they spent visiting family in New York as teenagers.

Lots of guest-rappers appear on Lord Willin’, but only a few of the big stars can really keep pace with Malice and Pusha’s layered crime-talk. It’s no coincidence that the rappers who really fit were Fabolous and Jadakiss, the twin pillars of the NY mixtape world. Everyone else was just filling space until the Thornton brothers returned to the microphone. But the Thornton brothers’ friends make an impression, too. There’s world-building on Lord Willin’, and the album introduced a few crucial supporting players who had stunning verses of their own — Ab-Liva, FamLay, Roscoe P. Coldchain.

Speaking of world-building, Lord Willin’ is a masterfully constructed album in part because of the way it highlights the whole Clipse mythology. In the first two tracks, Malice and Pusha talk about being generations deep in the drug game: “Scout’s honor, started with my grandmama, who distributed yay she had flown in from the Bahamas… See, my family got a history of hustlers/ Little brother, big brother, mother to grandmother, it’s tradition.” (I still love the way Malice savors the word “tradition.”) Again and again, Malice lovingly describes his grandmother: “A cigarette dangle, 45-degree angle/ Still every bit a lady, but you don’t wanna tangle.” Pusha, meanwhile, depicts himself as a kid who kept seeing bricks around the house and who couldn’t wait to get involved even as a toddler: “Started with Yosemite Sam/ With the gun in palm of each hand, what couldn’t I demand?”

Malice and Pusha rapped in a similar frozen, literary deadpan, and that can’t be an accident. I wonder if Pusha listened back to Exclusive Audio Footage and realized that he needed to adjust his delivery to sound more like Malice. At first, I remember everyone having trouble telling the two brothers’ voices apart. Eventually, though, the subtle differences revealed themselves. Some of that was stylistic. Malice was tighter with his cadences, more compressed, while Pusha was just slightly more devil-may-care with his flows.

But the big differences were the variances in perspective. Pusha loved talking about being young and amoral, in it for the fun: “I carry a human heatbox to make ya heartbeat stop/ Some say Pusha’s the coldest/ Money is my morals; other than that, I’m soulless.” Malice was harder and more serious. He seemed quicker to talk about violence, but his verses were lined with a regret that gave him extra gravitas. Today, some of Malice’s lines seem to foreshadow his religious awakening: “It shames me to no end to feed poison to those who could very well be my kin/ But where there’s demand, someone will supply/ So I feed them their needs — at the same time, cry.” Pusha has earned his place in the rap pantheon, but on those early Clipse records, Malice was always my favorite. He is such an author he should smoke a pipe.

All of Clipse’s stories took place in a context of the Virginia Tidewater region, where, to hear them tell it, everyone was involved in similarly violent enterprises: “In Virginia, we smirked at that Simpson trial/ Yeah, I guess the chase was wild, but what’s the fuss about?/ See, plenty my partners feelin’ like OJ/ Beat murder like the shit is OK.” The song “Virginia” remains one of the hardest records of that particular era. I’ve been living in Virginia for about a decade now, but I’m not from here. When “Virginia” is on, though? When that song is playing, I’m from here.

Clipse were playing the game, so Lord Willin’ is not simply an art-museum piece about the Thornton brothers’ Proustian reveries over cocaine bricks. They were trying to make hits, and they succeeded, even if they came to dislike some of those hits. “When The Last Time” is a deathlessly funky club anthem with sneakily sophisticated flows. (Once, I tried doing “When The Last Time” at karaoke with a friend, and we utterly shanked it, even though we both knew the song backwards and forwards. It’s not easy to sound as unflappable as those guys.) “When The Last Time” did even better than “Grindin'” on the pop charts, but within a few years, it had disappeared from Clipse’s live shows. Pusha in that Complex piece: “It was probably my highest-charting record ever, and I hate it.” I don’t agree with his stance, but I respect it.

Third single “Ma, I Don’t Love Her” was the duo’s attempt at a relationship song, and it just didn’t work. The melody has a forced playfulness that I find irritating, and Faith Evans barely does anything on the hook. That song was the last time that Clipse ever made the Hot 100 as lead artists, but it’s still remembered justly as a failure. Other than the redundant “Grindin'” remixes at the end of the record, it’s the only Lord Willin’ track that I ever skip.

Pusha has always seemed embarrassed about those pop records, but they served a function. Lord Willin’ went gold and neared platinum status. A few months after its release, Clipse appeared on “Like I Love You,” Justin Timberlake’s first solo single. But the post-Lord Willin’ Clipse record that’s stuck around the most isn’t “Like I Love You.” It’s the perfectly chilling “What Happened To That Boy,” which might be my favorite rap record of the entire ’00s. That has very little to do with Birdman, the guy who technically released the song. It has everything to do with the spaced-out, experimental Neptunes beat and the absolute feast of cold Clipse punchlines: “Quit ya yappin’ ‘fore I get to clappin’ and have your body parts mix and matchin’, fella.” Absolute fucking masterpiece. Hang it in a museum.

Lord Willin’ should’ve been the beginning of a long and rewarding career, and that’s ultimately what it was. In the album’s immediate wake, though, Clipse found themselves buried in shifting record-label sands, trying to make a record for a label that wasn’t remotely interested in that kind of laser-eyed street rap. The world caught up eventually, but we’ve still never gotten another record quite like Lord Willin’. With their debut album, Clipse put on a sheer rap clinic, outshining every one of their contemporaries from the South and New York — maybe even Philadelphia, too. (We’ll never know what might’ve happened if State Property had a whole album’s worth of Neptunes beats.) People like to joke about Pusha T still making drug-dealer music two decades later, but I can’t blame him. He’s the best at it. And if you’d made Lord Willin’, why would you ever want to make anything else?

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