Take a fast look at Lord Willin', Virginia Beach hip-hop duo Clipse's debut album, and you'll be forgiven for taking it for another piece of second-rate gangsta rap. On the cover is an amateurish drawing of a ghetto street, run-down buildings with broken windows in the background. In the foreground, Clipse members Malice and Pusha-T are depicted driving a top-down Cadillac; in the backseat is a black Jesus, complete with crown of thorns. Get it? Lord willin'?
The second album Clipse have recorded but the first they've released (their 1998 debut, Exclusive Audio Footage, was shelved after a single, "The Funeral," became a minor hit), Lord Willin' is unrepentant gangsta. It can be heard as something of a primer for the style, a kind of guided tour of a day in the life of a grinder (a slang term for drug dealer, according to the neck-snapping smash "Grindin'"). But there are crucial differences between Clipse and gangsta rap's usual run. Even when Malice sheds a tear in "I'm Not You" ("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 and at the same time cry"), he doesn't sound self-pitying. In fact, both he and Pusha-T are completely remorseless. Malice again, from "Cot Damn": "They just can't understand or fathom my demeanor/Unapproachable appearance to how I pack the ninas/Out of two Clipse, they say Malice the meanest/Got love for guns and 'caine, let nothin' come between us/You mistook me for a rapper, huh?/Well, that makes me an actor, 'cause I would rather clap a gun."
Clipse's coldness, though, manages to grip and hold in a way that eludes most of their peers. Granted, a lot of this has to do with the production. Critics have carped that the Neptunes' beats outshine Clipse substantially enough to make the latter seem superfluous, and indeed no hip-hop album I've heard this year is as musically consistent as Lord Willin': The stabs of a sampled "Uh!," the tick-tocking rhythm, and the wah-wah guitar groan of "Comedy Central" suggest a bionic theme from a '70s TV sitcom (Sanford and Son meets The Six Million Dollar Man, say). The grunting baritone sax of "Young Boy" is a '60s James Brown homage in the style of another great Neptunes cut, Mystikal's "Shake Ya Ass." The tuned-bottle percussion and relaxed two-chord stroll of "Virginia" remake Cali-style gangsta bounce into something leaner and altogether more fetching. "When the Last Time" balances a tuned-static synth hook over an off-kilter funk beat. The Neptunes continue to be masters of turning empty space into an asset: Few producers get better mileage out of the silence between two beats. Britney Spears once served as a content-free vehicle around which the Neptunes built these elaborate soundscapes, and, according to plenty of folks, Clipse do as well.
Except I don't think so. Nobody is claiming either MC is a strikingly original stylist. Comparisons to Queensbridge duo Mobb Deep have come so frequently from critics that you'd be forgiven for imagining the Clipse were merely that group recording under an alias. And surely their subjects are roughly the same as those of anyone else of their ilk -- from coke to broads (only they wouldn't use that word) to the seedy downside of thug life, it's all there. What matters with any formalist style and stylist, though, is details and tone. Lord Willin' is convincing largely because the Clipse almost never sound like they're posing for anything. This is a record on which nearly every song features bragging about being rich, yet it's unremittingly tense -- there's nothing like the Notorious B.I.G.'s former-ghetto-dwellers-livin'-large anthem "Juicy" to provide relief, no light at the end of the tunnel.
In fact, there's no indication that this is a tunnel. Malice and Pusha-T sound unnervingly comfortable occupying the life they describe. This tends to be the opposite of how great gangsta works: Either you're a moralist like early Ice-T or KRS-One, or you blow the details into vivid wide-screen Technicolor like NWA or MOP, who make the often-tired subjects sound flat-out exhilarating. Clipse don't. Even when they're boasting about being (yawn) wrongdoing sociopaths with woman problems (pass the blunt and/or Courvoisier), they exude an unhyper, matter-of-fact, everyday attitude about it. They sound like professionals, a far scarier thing.
They're also slyer than you'd expect, as when Pusha-T puns on smooth-voiced R&B auteur Kenny Edmonds Jr.'s alter ego on "When the Last Time": "Pinned her ass to the sofa/And attacked the cho-cha/S&M chick, asked Pusha to choke her/But I thought about it and said 'No sir'/Chick was crazy, gave her crazy space/What did it, the whip appeal/Or my baby face?"
Between that lyric and the astoundingly callous "Ma, I Don't Love Her," in which a cad dismisses his mistress to his wife, it's hardly surprising these guys have woman problems to begin with. But as Neptune Pharrell Williams slaveringly whispers "Let me love ya, girl" in a calculated mockery of his own sung hook on Jay-Z's "I Just Wanna Love You (Give It to Me)," even that dislikable song makes its position exceptionally explicit. They're ruthless bastards, all right; they're also better at it than just about anyone. And the vividness of detail on Lord Willin' justifies the competition-taunt of the album's first line: "Playa, we ain't the same."