When rappers write about where they came from, there’s often a sense of loving appreciation overflowing from their work — like Jermaine Dupri and Ludacris’ “Welcome To Atlanta,” which gave listeners a play-by-play of the highlights of the city’s nightlife, or Ja Rule’s “New York,” which focused on the grittiness of the city’s streets to proclaim his love for his turf. But Clipse’s 2003 track, “Virginia,” buried deep in their debut album Lord Willin’, flipped the script completely. Delirious and depressing, the Bronx-born brothers, who relocated to the state as kids and grew up in Virginia Beach, announced that there wasn’t shit to do but cook cocaine, taking a realistic approach to establishing a narrative instead of painting broad strokes. Their years spent in the kitchen — over the stove, out of necessity — defined their music and provided the skeleton for three-albums worth of chilling observations, pensive reflections and immersive storytelling.
Their sophomore album, Hell Hath No Fury, represents the brightest of this trajectory and serves as a magnum opus for their cult of cocaine. Through the lens of neon-drenched beats that exist in the stratosphere made by The Neptunes, the Virginian production duo consisting of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, Clipse worship the stove collectively, even if faith leans stronger for one brother than the other. Their subtle differences give its message an ominous glint at the future — one that includes a split, rebirth and two separate journeys. It’s not just one of the best rap albums to come out 2006, but one of the most important rap albums of all time.
By the time 2006 rolled around, the Clipse were jaded by the industry.
Brothers Terrence “Pusha T” Thornton and Gene “Malice” Thornton were 14 years into the game, with just one album out. Born in the Bronx (Malice in 1972, Pusha T in 1977), they relocated with family to Virginia Beach as kids. Once they hit the sandy shores, life turned into Snowfall. A few streets over from their middle-class neighborhood in Bridle Creek, kids their age would have candy-painted cars, inspiring them to start pushing ivory white. When Malice was 15, he was coming home daily with more than $700 in his pocket. He started rapping solo and made a group named Jarvis.
Malice’s music caught the ear of Pharrell Williams and they formed a working relationship. It wasn’t too long after that Terrence, who’d been watching his brother write his rhymes from the sidelines, announced his own intention to pick up the mic. Taking on the name Pusha T, he performed a rhyme for Malice and Pharrell — the latter suggesting, after hearing it, that the two become a duo since Malice didn’t like to write three verses for songs anyway. Malice did a brief stint in the army and once he came home, the two christened themselves The Clipse, eager to show the world what cocaine dealers that grew up in Virginia sound like.
This isn’t a story of immediate, brotherly success as you’d think if you only discovered their music after they released their palms-bruising 2002 single, “Grindin’.” Long before that, Clipse was putting the work in — as far back as ’94. It wouldn’t be until 1996 that the two secured a deal with Elektra, with Pharrell’s help. They spent the better part of three years working on an album, Exclusive Audio Footage, from a blueprint that would become central to their music: autobiographical raps about the beauty and horrors of cocaine set to the burnt disco sounds of The Neptunes. The LP’s singles landed with a thud, leading to the record getting shelved indefinitely and them leaving the label. Clipse was back to square one.
Luckily, failure gets erased eventually with enough success. Their true commercial debut album, Lord Willin’ (VMP Essentials No. 65), arrived in 2002 off the strength of “Grindin’,” enabling them to introduce Virginia as a breeding ground for established and aspiring cocainists with necessary stories to tell. Hip-hop’s most exciting brotherly duo was fresh on the scene and found themselves on Justin Timberlake’s debut solo single “Like I Love You” later that year. The world was finally tuned in, eager to see what was coming next. Only, it would take four long, cold years for it to finally arrive.
Work for their follow-up album began soon after the release of Lord Willin’ — starting the following year in 2003. But before they could finish it up, shit hit the fan. Arista Records, who they were signed to, got dissolved into Jive Records due to a merger between Sony Music Entertainment and Bertelsmann Music Group. The pieces began moving. Star Trak Entertainment was moved to Interscope Records and, because of contractual obligations, Clipse were forced to remain with Jive.
Unwavered by all of the moving pieces, Clipse kept working on the album, but when they were finally ready to release it, they got hit with pushback from the label. 2004 came and went. Then 2005. The delays kept piling up, the duo’s frustration level rapidly ascending through the roof along with them. They eventually sued Jive to get out of their contract and grasp any lasting piece of momentum that had endured through the thousands of rap years that ran over the span of four. Finally, in May 2006, their dreams became a reality. They were out. Not just out, but ready —the first single for their long-awaited second studio album, Hell Hath No Fury, dropped that same month.
Hell Hath No Fury isn’t some grand ode to the frustration experienced by two brothers sick of the industry’s bullshit. It is an album powered by anger and what feels like a quota of necessary flexes, but has much more to say about the ideologies of drug dealers, former drug dealers and brothers. They may have officially began recording it in 2003, but there’s a lifetime of experiences spread out across its 12 tracks. There’s cocaine — mountains of it — sold and shipped, but never snorted. There’s blinding neck pieces, convertible coupes and winking women. But there’s also tension and friction beneath its alien beats, often between the brothers’ raps themselves, providing for an interesting twist on chemistry. They come together to chastise rappers for copying them, but their ultimate feelings on the institution of cocaine are drastically different. You don’t even have to listen to the album to see that — just look at the cover. Malice looks away from the stove that they cook cocaine on, seemingly in disgust. Pusha T grips it and strikes a pose, worshipping it, defined by it, dedicated to it.
As religious as the brothers are, devout Christians, Hell Hath No Fury leaves the church outside of its doors. Take “Trill,” the soundtrack to a summer trip to the skate park. While The Neptunes’ droning production cools the atmosphere, the two rappers — plus Pharrell, of course — pray to diamonds, instead of God, for glory. Bling gives them bliss, brings them peace and provides confidence for attacking the day. “Nightmares” sounds just as breezy, even if infinitely darker, featuring a fear of the inevitable that coincides with the concept of eternal damnation. God isn’t mentioned here either (except for a brief “Pray to the Lord” in the last verse), just the belief that something dangerous is around the corner — something that religion won’t save them from.
Pusha T and Malice plant their feet in the ground across the album’s 12 tracks and pen brief glimpses into their past and current lives. Lord Willin’ was the autobiography; Hell Hath No Fury is the memoir. “We Got It For Cheap (Intro)” kicks things off with an image of Pusha T strutting through the door and getting cheers from the dope dealers like Michael Jordan strolling through the mall. Pusha T continues to serve as the cocaine champion throughout the album’s brief narratives while Malice, flirting with cocaine but not submerged in it, is more reserved, more contemplative. Case in point, he reflects on his rise to the top of the drug game on “We Got It For Cheap (Intro)” and kisses it goodbye.
This creates the album’s central, yet subtle, clash of the minds. Pusha T, four years younger than Malice, has more vivid memories of surviving through the avalanche. His raps about it are stronger and, if all else fails, he’d return the way that he came. But Malice, older and jaded, is more content with moving on. On “Keys Open Doors,” he dives back into the bag for a brief stretch as he yells “Re-Up” and paints a picture of throwing it on the scale, but it’s purposefully empty. He comes alive when exploring paranoia and regret, so much so that on “Momma I’m So Sorry,” his stirring glimpses into the downfalls of drug talk can choke you up. He acknowledges the weight of selling cocaine and rapping about it, so he’s ready to move on from it — and for listeners, who are kids, to learn from his mistakes. It’s a contemplative verse that really proves his differences from Pusha T who, in the verse before, spits lovingly about the coke that his brother steps away from.
Together or against each other, Clipse’s verses pop with an unforgettable zeal across Hell Hath No Fury, thanks to the contorted production from The Neptunes. From horns that zoom around the ear like wounded flies, to the atonal, alien hiss of bass that made an already sinister Lil Wayne diss into a skeletal middle finger, The Neptunes’ vast and varied approach to the LP’s pace makes it stick, in a haunting way. There’s something special about glimpses of greed and remorse through tense, but tame, plucks of a harp.
Pharrell’s imprint isn’t just on the backend as one half of The Neptunes — he also slithers through Hell Hath No Fury as a disembodied voice that connects the Clipse’s earthy delivery to The Neptunes’ ethereal creations. He chants choruses like he’s possessed, whispers sharp threats like daggers and moves his voice to match various pitches. He’s clearly having a blast, enabling the group to reach new creative heights as artists. He represents the fun that the album has at its highest level. He’s the tour guide who’s controlling the pace of the adventure.
When an adventure ends, you often reflect on the lessons that you learned through experiencing it. Hell Hath No Fury is a journey that doesn’t have anything to teach — instead, it pays homage to cocaine dealers as veterans of the streets. Pusha T and Malice are on two different sides of the equation when it comes to continuing to revel in trafficker excellency, but they both share a love and understanding for what dealers go through. Pusha T slips into white-eyed pockets with bars like “break down pies to pieces, make cocaine quiches,” and Malice preaches for positivity by being Sosa instead of Tony Montana, looking for long-term success through hustles. They have different ways of proving it, but Hell Hath No Fury hides a love letter to the block that’s more romantic than anything that The Isley Brothers ever made. Clipse prove to be established vets that are always a blink away from white mounds, and the album’s unrelenting reality made it a surefire hit during a time where snap dances and autotuned bullshit were becoming the norm.
Clipse would go on to release one more album together three years later: Til the Casket Drops. It became their first to not be primarily produced by The Neptunes and found them settling into a new angle of lifestyle raps powered by getting away from cocaine and dealing with the pitfalls of the industry. Critics found it an uneven listen, as if they read too much of the press surrounding their subject matter and wanted to switch it up. What was happening was, beneath the surface, the mood of the group was changing. Malice was growing further away from the powder. In 2010, the year after the album’s release, The Clipse split up.
Pusha-T went on to become a central piece of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music (where he’s currently the president) and turned a standout verse on West’s “Runaway” into a tenacious solo career, playing the role of a pensive coke dealer who’ll never get over the experiences in the trenches that brought him to where he is now. Malice, on the other hand, decided to add “No” in front of his name to become No Malice and published a first-person narrative about his relationship with religion called Wretched, Pitiful, Poor, Blind and Naked in 2011. He became a born-again Christian and now raps from a holier, non-cursing perspective. On a 2017 song, “Fake News,” he took a match to his cocaine music catalog to start again, free from the pain.
Hell Hath No Fury remains Clipse’s premier body of work that captured their perspectives on their past lives. With its straight-edged narration and often grizzly details, mixed with The Neptunes mission to make production that transcended the trappings of the streets, the album shattered expectations of what “drug rap” sounds like. In essence, they established a new sound, a new genre, that countless artists have tried to recreate in the time since its release. The duality of the brothers’ approach to rapping about cocaine elevated an already lean collection of songs into essential listening for anyone interested in trekking the growth of the mind over the course of young adulthood. From top to bottom, Hell Hath No Fury positions itself as a call to action and appreciation for cocaine dealers, as well as a dizzying exhibition of what can be accomplished when you leave cocaine behind for something bigger.
I rediscovered a love for Hell Hath No Fury that I thought had long evaporated over the years. But upon pressing play from the comfort of my home in Williamsburg, Virginia, I could see the dreary Virginia Beach streets swim into view. Pusha T passing off rocks from his sock. Malice dreaming of something more. And how all of that transformed into their monumental account of what happened years ago. There’s still nothing that sounds anywhere near close. Both Pusha T and No Malice have moved on from selling cocaine, but the 12 songs of Hell Hath No Fury manage to hold the crux of their experiences, dreams, anxieties and wishes from that particular time.
Trey Alston is a writer, essayist and copywriter who writes for Vulture, Complex, Pitchfork, Highsnobiety and more. When he’s not writing scripts for Complex News, he’s a columnist at PAPER Magazine where he covers viral music each month.
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