“As hip hop… blossomed into the radiant center of youth culture, a lot of white kids found in it a way to flee their own orderly world by discovering a sexier, more provocative one.”
The New York Times’ N.R. Kleinfeld wrote those words back in 2000 for a series called “How Race is Lived in America.” Hip hop was still dominated by black artists from impoverished backgrounds, but thanks to increased popularity nationwide, its label offices, magazines, and listeners were skewing more white and affluent. Hailing from outside the boundaries of the culture that produced the music, they favored the provocative— the hood tales furthest from their own comfortable realities. Call it escapism, culture-vulturing, or simply “piss off Mom and Dad.”
Kleinfeld tapped into this idea of hip hop’s most dangerous elements being its biggest appeal among white suburbanites. “Hip hop culture was becoming a great sugar rush for young people of all races,” he wrote, before adding that whites were buying a full 70% of the country’s rap albums. He shared this stat with Dog, a member of long-forgotten New York rap group Wanted and Respected, whose response Kleinfeld recorded:
“White people can listen to rap, but I know they can’t relate. I hear rap and I’m saying, ‘Here’s another guy who’s had it unfair.’ They’re taking, ‘This guy is cool, he’s a drug dealer, he’s got all the girls, he’s a big person, he killed people.’ That is moronic.”
Perhaps no other modern rap album embodies this divide better than Clipse’s sophomore album, Hell Hath No Fury, released ten years ago today. The brothers Thornton, Pusha T and Malice, came up in Virginia, a place they described on their first album as “where there ain’t shit to do but cook,” and although they rapped about the drug trade on all three of their commercial releases, it peaked on their second. 2002’s Lord Willin’ did have that scathing ode to their home state, but also some label-mandated crossover attempts like the Faith Evans-assisted “Ma, I Don’t Love Her.” As Malice once put it, “at that point in time we were in a different place, we were happier.” 2009’s farewell effort Til the Casket Drops had a lead single named after a Will Ferrell quote, so it was quite clear that both brothers had one foot out of the door. But Hell Hath No Fury was as cold and unrepentant as its title suggested.
Landing a full four years after its predecessor, the album was a testament to Clipse’s desire to keep their music raw and uncut. They were embroiled in a dispute with their label, Jive, who wanted the group to try more lighthearted crossover attempts. “Truthfully,” Pusha T wrote while annotating his bald-faced Jive diss on the album, “the whole Hell Hath No Fury delay was really about us being loyal to the Neptunes.” The result of their victory was a project so anti-commercial and weird that it’s hard to believe that it came out on a label that also released albums by Nick Lachey and Aaron Carter that year.
Hell Hath No Fury became one of the best-reviewed hip hop albums of the year—and was reviewed on a lot of indie rock blogs— but mostly on the back of reviews that gushed about its provocative nature and experimental beats, while either ignoring its brutal coke-dealing realities, or even positing that they were fiction. Pitchfork published a breathless review that waxed on about the duo’s “unjustifiable relishing of moral decay.” Robert Christgau called it “noir worthy of [author] Jim Thompson.” The Guardian’s reviewer spent a few sentences discerning whether or not the song “Trill” was about budgerigar food. PopMatters deemed it “one of the most entertaining releases of the year, patched with glorious lyrical play, blinging exercises in fantasy and a jaunty half-seriousness.” Blender praised its “ghetto viciousness as literary exercise.” The Thornton brothers’ exercise in honesty, which they painstakingly fought to bring to life, made diehard fans out of most white critics and fans. But while they praised Clipse’s boldness, it was largely treated as a dystopian fantasy.
Pusha T is well aware of his distance from Hell Hath No Fury’s most vocal fans. On 2011’s “Trouble on My Mind,” he boldly asked us to name another rapper who could “put the hipsters with felons and thugs,” and in a documentary released earlier this year, he explained how that demographic shift was key to the album’s success:
“The [Hell Hath No Fury] write-ups were so good. The blogs were clamoring about the Clipse. We just found our niche with that album— we found out who exactly our fans was. We started off solely in the streets, and then we sort of just found these college, white, internet monsters. We even had a name: they were called the Clipsters. Like hipsters… And they were all about us. We embraced ‘em as well.”
“The blogs were clamoring about the Clipse. We just found our niche with that album— we found out who exactly our fans was. We started off solely in the streets, and then we sort of just found these college, white, internet monsters.”
There were a lot of reasons for this phenomenon of young white guys, whose taste in music generally skewed more indie, being attracted to Hell Hath No Fury. For one, it had the most experimental collection of beats the Neptunes had ever gifted to a single rap album. The buzzy, isolated 808s of “Mr. Me Too,” the billowing arpeggio of “Ride Around Shining” that reverberates as if played in a marble ballroom, the grimy, hollowed-out synth bass on “Trill”— these were some sounds that no other hip hop producers were attempting at the time. Especially once we got into the early 2010s era of indie pop bands listing producers like DJ Screw and Timbaland as influences, this type of weird-but-mainstream beatmaking became prized beyond whatever Madlib or Flying Lotus were doing. In many ways, Hell Hath No Fury was the culmination of an era when radio hits like Kelis’ “Milkshake” or Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River” had wilder production than most underground hip hop, except for once, these pop producers were deploying their irregular textures alongside “realer” music.
Then you had Pusha and Malice’s lyrics. Unlike most previous cocaine-focused hip hop, like say, Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt, Clipse dispensed with most hyper-regional content and slang, which tends to alienate kids in rural America whose only experience with the drug trade was buying ditch weed from high school classmates. Instead, the brothers Thornton leaned heavily on references that wouldn’t go over the head of even the most sheltered teen. Lines like “I’m in touch with the keys, move over Alicia” or ‘Break down keys into dimes and sell ‘em like Gobstoppers” put their grisly reality in terms that you could understand, even if you couldn’t relate. Clipse’s songs are transmissions from every side of a drug dealer’s reality. As Malice said in a 2006 interview:
“When we came out, there was a lot of criticism about what we talk about and whatever, but we dont just say keys, bricks, but we use real descriptions: from the upside to the downside, we tell the full spectrum.”
Distracted by the funhouse mirrors of weird beats and LOL-worthy bars, many critics totally glossed over what forms the foundation. “No serum can cure all the pain I’ve endured,” Pusha says in literally the fifth line of the album. The songs may be coated in the sonic equivalent of candy paint and ostentatious rims, but as vehicles for emotion, they’re fully functional; souped-up even. Clipse apologize to their mother for dealing, lash out at their label for album delays that sent them back to the trap, stunt on affluent whites who want them out of the neighborhood, mourn the fallen, look death and the law in the face, pray that stray bullets don’t hit children. They’re humans, for fuck’s sake, but because most critics are lucky enough to have never dealt with any of those situations, they initially took Pusha T and Malice for pulpy, MF DOOM-style supervillains. Hell Hath No Fury acted as the ultimate escapist pleasure for most of its fans upon its release, when in actuality, it’s a brutal, real-as-it-gets album, full of a lot of hard truth.