Splendor & Misery
Sub Pop Records
hip-hop / experimental / noise
It is within human nature to choose sides. No matter how far you look back, there is tension between two factions. Democrats versus Republicans. North versus south, east versus west. Slaves versus traders. Slavery was seen as acceptable for longer than it has been outlawed. It’s easy to look pessimistically into our future and imagine the dark past repeating. This is the case in the world that Splendor & Misery by clipping. builds. However, Splendor & Misery also shines a ray of hope in a future filled with despair.
clipping. is an experimental hip-hop trio whose first full length LP was released on Sub Pop in 2014. At their worst, clipping. makes novelty music. Something you listen to once and think “oh, that was cool,” but soon forget about. However, their experimental nature is what draws seasoned music listeners to their output. They have, for example, been known to change time signatures numerous times in a track, create the majority of an instrumental from a beautifully harmonized alarm clock, or make heavy use of gunshot samples in a song. Despite their eccentric, untraditional methods, they’ve made plenty of music that an untrained ear can appreciate and listen to repeatedly. Splendor & Misery is not that.
clipping. has proven they have the ability to make catchy, pop-friendly singles, but they chose not to on this release–which is respectable. In fact, vocalist Daveed Diggs won both a Grammy and a Tony award for his recent performance in the musical Hamilton. Diggs’s involvement in musical theater is likely what inspired this release, a concept album that plays out a bit like a musical. The group’s signature white noise is still quite prevalent in this release, however it has taken a back seat compared to previous LP’s.
Instead, there is a focus on a futuristic sci-fi story. A story not hidden by metaphor, but spoken somewhat plainly, with each song being a new short chapter. The story follows a slave on board a “cargo” ship, presumably destined for a life of unpaid labor on a faraway planet. The storytelling switches between two perspectives, occasionally a narrator rapping the story to the listener, and sometimes the main character rapping to himself. Most of the story happens within the first two tracks, while the rest of the album is an exploration into the mind of the character, as well as the relationship between him, the ship, its AI computer, and space.
Sonically, we hear the low engine hums, bleeping synthesizers, gospel singing, as well as the aforementioned static and rapping. The more pleasant instrumentals are found in the middle chapters–melodic, but still glitchy and erratic. There are few traditional hip-hop “beats” to be heard. “Air ‘Em Out” would be the closest to a standard modern hip-hop song, but ends up sounding more like a parody of hip-hop, with lyrics that sound like they were written one hundred years from now. Unfortunately, the music is not diverse or satisfying enough to warrant more than one or two listens. Once you’ve heard the story, you’re satisfied.
As heartbreaking and thought-provoking as this album is, I fear for its re-listenability and longevity, as well as its appeal to those who are not already fans of the group. I would sooner recommend this album to a fan of musical theater than a fan of hip-hop. Perhaps that was intended by the artist. Splendor & Misery is a tale of the woes of slavery, a common theme in hip-hop, though clipping. creates a clever spin on these ideas through the allegory of a bleak dystopian future. As the record comes to a close, it takes on a brighter, more hopeful, yet still somber sound. The final chapter promises “A Better Place” where everyone can be themselves. We can only hope for that in the future.