OutKast may be the greatest hip-hop duo ever, but Clipse come a close second. Brothers Terrence (Pusha T) and Gene (No Malice, formerly just Malice) Thornton came straight out of Virginia, making a giant impact with their Neptunes produced debut Lord Willin’ ten years ago. They spent a weird amount of time dealing in pop obscurity due to label issues, but further developing their street rhymes on the mixtape circuit and growing a humorously diverse audience of coke rap purists and excitable hipsters. When they dropped their long awaited sophomore, Hell Hath No Fury, Pusha took to calling it “the gangsta Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” which is basically the best way to describe any album, ever. Their vivid, Scorsese hood tales were built on a perfect dichotomy. Malice, the wiser, more contemplative older brother, would always temper his grandiose rhymes with a rueful, self-possessed glint of guilt. Here was a man who once mused about driving a nice car with “So clean, custom Bent. Got the nerve to step out it like I’m discontent.” Pusha, by comparison, was more brash, a lightning rod of esoteric ballernomics. A friend once said of Clipse’s music, “Malice told you what they bought, but Pusha? He told you how much that shit cost.”
On their third release, Til The Casket Drops, a rift was beginning to form. Opening track “Freedom” presented an uncharacteristically redemptive Pusha, indulging in a momentary foray into conscious rap, as his brother was in the process of finding God. The album, as a whole, featured the same thrilling tales of coke slinging, groupie bagging and money blowing, but every other song offered uncomfortably regretful musings on life in between champagne glass raising and coupe purchasing. The brothers always rapped about their alleged dalliances with selling drugs on the side of their music ventures, but the shock of one of their closest friends getting busted covered the world they described with a different haze. If Instagram had a filter called “Last Act of Goodfellas” it might have been appropriate for the audio selfies they were taking. It didn’t connect with audiences quite the same way as their previous two albums, and not long after, it was revealed they would take a break as a duo. Pusha T signed with Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music label as a solo act and Malice became No Malice, and took time off to pen a book about his trials and tribulations.
Now, released a month apart, the brothers have offered the world their first solo albums. This week, Pusha T finally let loose My Name is My Name, a heavily anticipated album that has been pushed back slightly less times than Dr. Dre’s Detox. A little over a month ago, to considerably less fanfare, No Malice put out what might be the best Christian rap album ever, Hear Ye Him. Both albums have tight run times, clear objectives, exceptional rhymes and tone appropriate production, but one of them was made with God in mind, and the other was godfathered by the man who this year rapped a song called “I Am A God.”
No Malice’s HYH presents a very peculiar, but very welcome new archetype to the hip hop landscape. No Malice isn’t the first gangster to find God, and he won’t be the last, but there is an honesty and an openness to how he displays beliefs that is truly inspiring. He’s not trying to convince anybody that he never did the things he did or rapped about the things he rapped about, only showing who he is now and where he came from, and where we, as a people, can go. Outside of some cloying, melodramatic interludes that could easily be radio commercials for your local church, his new found love for Jesus is presented as a matter of fact aspect of who he is, not something to shove down listeners throats. He’s cleaned up all the foul language and doesn’t sound one tenth as goofy as post ID4 Will Smith does. He makes for a more convincing man of God than Ma$e ever did. No Malice is the Cool Dad hip hop needs!
The same man who said “I pull up, let her get in, she know from the beginning, she added to the list of them chicks that I done been in” on “When The Last Time” all those years ago, takes time out from his song “Different,” a Yo Gabba Gabba friendly take on Nas’ “I Can” to plaintively say this to a theoretical young girl:
“Baby girl, I’m here to tell you
You ain’t gotta pop it, you ain’t gotta drop it
Shake it, twerk it or bounce it
And you are still just as beautiful”
This is a real thing he said! It’s totally true and awesome, as hypocritical as it would have sounded coming out of someone else’s mouth. his utter conviction and the smile you can hear in his voice make it work. His thoughts are clear as crystal and he appears fully formed with none of the awkwardness Pusha first possessed when he went solo. On the song “Still Got Love” No Malice reminisces about his past and his former collaborators. It’s so touching and genuine when it could have been sappy. He says “all is well with Pharrell…” and revisits their youths, recording music in Chad Hugo’s basement. When he says “No one ever really dies” referencing the Neptunes band N.E.R.D., any kid who grew up idolizing Star Trak and coveting Bathing Ape sneakers will shed a nostalgic tear.
Elsewhere, on the appropriately titled “Blasphemy,” he reunites with Fam-Lay with a hook that repeatedly uses the phrase “Goddamn” while using record scratches to bleep out the “God” part. I don’t know if Fam came up with that hook and No Malice liked it enough to mask it’s blasphemy, or if that was the entire point, in which case, kudos.
Pusha even shows up on “Shame The Devil,” their first track in a long time together that wouldn’t have been out of place on their last album. On “Bury That,” No Malice talks at length about his relationship with his brother:
“They would have you think I am at odds with my sibling
How they look alike, yet bear no resemblance
All hail the Clipse and all of their magnificence
But I cannot deny my deliverance
It is no coincidence
That God chose to use my brethren
To show the magnitude of these ties I’m severing
The fight’s fixed, especially ya top 10
Can you trust a list in which Pusha isn’t mentioned in?
Who copped a milli of them kilograms
Broke ’em down, chopped ’em up
Like a ceiling fan
We gave you truth, y’all ain’t want it
Y’all wanted spoof
Now I’m Holy Ghost filled like I’m haunted
A warning, it’s time to fall before Him on your knees
It seem like everything that’s real is what you won’t believe
Please, it’s time to let go of the past
Of the best duo ever
I guess I am an outcast”
It perfectly sums up where he ended up after the “split” and his comfort with where he is in life is admirable. He managed to keep recording good music he’s proud of while leaving behind the trappings he could no longer live with, without losing a step lyrically. The album might not crack any top tens this year, but its a feat regardless.
My Name is My Name is a different beast. In interviews, Pusha liked to boast that Kanye thought it sounded like Hell, and that his primary influence was the film Devil’s Advocate. On The-Dream collaboration “40 Acres,” one of the two emotional centerpieces on the album, Pusha says this about his brother:
“My better half chose the better path, applaud him
Younger brother me a spoiled child, I fought him
I heard that the Devil’s new playground is boredom
The California top just falls back like autumn
And they say I’m on the verge of winning
I claim victory when Malice on the verge of sinning
Old habits die hard”
MNIMN is sinful and celebratory where HYH is ruminative and plaintive. The album’s intro, “King Push” is probably the best opening track of 2013. Kanye West and some kid Joaquin Phoenix knows made this insane instrumental that is basically the beat to “New Slaves” but dipped in a bath salts batter and deep fried in original recipe Four Loko, and Pusha knocks it out of the fucking park. I had to limit myself to listening to it only once a day so I wouldn’t get fired from work for selling cocaine and superkicking small children in the face.
Pusha still has a way of making selling drugs seem as enticing as early episodes of Breaking Bad, but his experience has left him equally deft at showing the other side of the coin, not unlike later seasons of the fan favorite series. His memorable duet with Kendrick Lamar, “Nosetalgia,” is such sinewy menace, guitar stabs and wood block chops. Pusha uses the first verse to preen his villainous veneer and play the bad guy role to the “T” at the end of his moniker, setting up the perfect volley for K. Dot to rap effortlessly about the effect Pusha’s endless snow sales have on fiends and their families.
Its hard to discuss either Thornton brother without discussing The Neptunes. The two Pharrell produced cuts “Suicide” and “S.N.I.T.C.H” call to mind previous Clipse collabs, the apocalyptic booty jam “Trill” and “Hello, New World” respectively, but its really Kanye’s guiding hand that is felt the most. He had a co-production credit on nearly every other song, and although he provides no verses of his own, his disembodied voice serves as part of the backdrop for the album’s other emotional setpiece, “Hold On.” The song has the grandeur and scope of some of Kanye’s early contributions to Jay-Z’s catalog, but minus the chipmunk soul samples. On the song, Pusha takes jabs at his favorite enemies, so called “fake” coke rappers, which is amazing, because his verse is followed by one from Rick Ross, the fucking Orson Welles of mafioso rap. If Rick Ross’ rhymes were anymore fake, they’d be science fiction. If his next album is just Octavia Butler afrofuturism, it wouldn’t shock me in the least. He outclasses Pusha here, surprisingly, as the heft and dramatic weight of his voice creates such emotional resonance.
The album is not without it’s foibles. Although Pusha is more comfortable and confident than on previous solo outings, it still relies heavily on guest features and many of the standout tracks (the leering, boom bap of “Numbers On The Boards” and Ric Flair Woo-fest “Who I Am”) already trickled out as street singles leading up to the albums many false start release dates. MNIMN could easily have arrived crushed under the weight of the long wait and considerable hype. Instead, it arrives mildly dented but no less intact. MNIMN is impressive. It delivers on Pusha’s promise of being a strong contender for Rap Album of The Year, but there is nothing like coming short of your potential.
Back when Pusha originally began to promote his first solo mixtape, Fear of God, he released a freestyle over Jay Electronica’s “Ghost of Christopher Wallace” boasting “The best rapper ever, I know who’s alive!” He paraphrases this line on “Sweet Serenade,” but it doesn’t have the same effect. Back in late 2010, when he first said this, we had yet to see Pusha T on his own. The same man who said “They praying I never go solo” on “We Got It For Cheap” and who scolded Jay-Z imitators on “Big Dreams” and Jay-Z himself for co-signing said imitators on “Ill’n” had the gravitas and the arrogance and, most importantly, the vicious skill necessary to be a real contender for the crown. Two years of awkwardly trying to make radio hits and trying like hell to fill those empty 16s his brother so perfectly complimented, and that crown has moved on to other new jacks.
On this album, Pusha finds himself again, albeit with a giant entourage of fellow rap stars and luxury beats from one o the biggest rap artists on the planet. All No Malice needed to do the same was God’s love. Maybe Jesus is a better executive producer than Yeezus.
Both My Name Is My Name and Hear Ye Him are available digitally and physically, in stores now.