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New Coke 

Clipse reinforces the power of powder

Wednesday, Mar 7 2007
Cocaine/Crack rock is ... A) A national scourge, resulting in a generational holocaust following its boom in the early- to mid-'80s, leaving an entire generation of urban youth permanently maimed and/or scarred.

B) A hip-hop treasure. A wellspring of creativity, a means to empowerment, and a large chunk of the appeal for modern-day rappers imagining themselves street-corner Trumps, the ultimate clandestine capitalists.

Now more than ever, the definition tilts to the latter. Down South, rappers Young Jeezy and T.I. created a so-called "dope boy" movement that champions cocaine dealers and the hoes who love them. Jeezy even created a signature line of snowman tees that was the shit before concerned citizens got hipped to its not-so-subtle central metaphor and declared a fatwa on the ATL rapper. Miami rapper Rick Ross (he who is forevermore hustlin') even went so far as to name himself after the Bay Area's own Freeway Rick, otherwise known as the motherfucker who introduced crack to the masses.

On the East Coast, Dipset rapper/'hood heartthrob Juelz Santana proclaimed himself "human crack in the flesh." While in SoCal, Los Angeles rapper The Game proudly pronounced that he's a "product of my environment/ grew up in the '80s/ so that mean me Kanyeezy and Jeezy all crack babies." There was a time, not so long ago, when labeling yourself a crack baby would seem, how shall we say, counterproductive.

But perhaps the greatest champions of the coke rap movement are Gene and Terrence Thornton, otherwise known as Malice and Pusha-T of Virginia rap group Clipse. Their 2006 album, Hell Hath No Fury, is an unrepentant tribute to the power of white powder. The Thornton Brothers shuffle "snow," make "cocaine quiches," and "break down keys into dimes and sell 'em like gobstoppers." While on "Dirty Money," they offer to a girlfriend that "as long as I'm nice with the flame and the flask/ I don't mind keeping you up on the must-haves." After all, they'll remind us repeatedly, "keys open doors."

The group's apologists (aka pop critics and bloggers) claim that cocaine is merely an artistic prop for the duo. And indeed, Pusha and Malice elevate the drug to the realm of the symbolic, making it a stand-in for money, respect, and devotion. Coke has become the hip-hop equivalent of a "dark, stormy night," an instant signifier that transcends audience divides, and one that Clipse uses to engage listeners in oftentimes gruesome tales. But Clipse's focus is not so much on the narratives, but rather on language. Words are twisted, and meaning changes; the mundane is made obscene, and tragedy is a series of bad puns and pop cult riffs.

And, really, why shouldn't Clipse be able to piggyback off the tragedy of others? Artists have been doing the same for centuries, and who are we to ask these particular ones to re-evaluate? Their critics, for the most part, don't pack wings or halos, and haven't we all moved past the days when artistic merit was based on its political, moral, or even social impact? After all, we seemed to have forgotten a certain R&B singer's knack for pissing on children.

It's worth noting that previous generations of rappers certainly talked about blow, but they coated their lyrics in grime, arched the stories to tragedy, and avoided the wealth porn associated with modern rap. Somewhere along the line, hip hop slipped into the realm of fantasy — ironic, considering the goal of keeping it real — and the glossy, consequence-free veneer of these new cocaine cowboys confirms this larger trend. But this is, of course, an aesthetic judgment and not a moral one, and there's also little doubt that Clipse are among the most talented hip-hop groups around. So, enjoy the show on Thursday, and save me a bump while you're at it!

About The Author

Sam Chennault


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