*prognotes — Clipping’s Splendor & Misery, Part I: All Black Everything

If there’s something you’d like to take away from my time writing for the blog, soon to be three years, it is this: no music exists in a void. Even the most extreme of releases or the most isolated of works are influenced by and, in turn, influence other works of art. History, then, is a tool that all journalists, whether music or otherwise, should often utilize. Without the ability to understand a creation’s context, in a meaningful way beyond “hey, this sounds like that!”, reviews and editorials are doomed to be sterile, sentenced to remain shallow and cut off from the deeper oceans of meaning that criss-cross art. That is not to say that you have to have context when reviewing music but simply that it’s often the key to deeper understanding.

Thus, as we turn towards Clipping.‘s Splendor & Misery, we must take into account two aesthetic movements: science fiction and afro-futurism. These two ideas, elongated across the previous century and unfolding into the current one, are intricately linked. The latter draws heavily on the former while, at the same time, taking it into cultural units which it had only lightly handled before.

Afro-futurism is the second thread running through Splendor & Misery, the arterial rhythm which gives sense to its pulses and machinations. To understand what that means, we must first come to terms with the tropes of afro-futurism and a short chronology. This movement began, according to the official narrative in any case, with none other than visionary Sun Ra, in the 1950’s. Sun Ra blurred the lines between ideas such as comedy, music, radicalism, mythology, fantasy, science fiction, ancient African heritage and many more. Together with his Arkestra, Sun Ra was one of the first to blend the heady optimism and idealism of the burgeoning Space Age together with the dreams and fantasies of a marginalized people. Such a powerful mix cannot help but be radical; taking the history and, more importantly, stories of a subjugated culture and flinging it into the future (and into space) frees it into vastly radical forms.

Thus, ideas like feminism, violent protest, social radicalism, communism, radical body modification (trans-humanism was still an unfamiliar term back then) all blend into afro-futurism. Therefore, we can firmly place the aesthetic within the New Age of Science Fiction. Featuring writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Sherri S. Tepper, Harlan Ellison and many more, our second movement injected the above ideas directly into the science fiction mainstream. This marriage created science fiction that was more concerned with deconstructing (and reconstructing) modern ideas, power systems and literature than with technical specifications of ship’s engines, dashing space heroes and intergalactic warfare (although some of them include all of the above). These ideas would later birth many of the movements of contemporary science-fiction, namely cyberpunk (Gibson’s “Neuromancer” by the way includes an afro-futuristic character, the dub fan Maelcum who lives on the Rastafarian space station, Zion).

These two ideas converge on Clipping.. First, through artists like George Clinton and, more recently, Shabazz Palaces and Flying Lotus, the idea of afro-futurism still has forward momentum. Splendor & Misery is Clipping.’s contribution to this genre, replete with internal communications, trope inversion, shared imagery and more. But on the other hand, it also contains a wealth of science fiction references and ideas, extrapolating as it does on the space-opera sub-trope (apologies for glossing this over, but if we go into the nuances of space opera, this post will take years. Light years). Thus, it calls back, directly and indirectly, to the works cited above while, at the same time, challenging the ideas contained within them. Therefore, it pushes afro-futurism into new places, more grounded, less ethereal and with a fascinating relationship with the rest of Clipping.’s discography. As we, finally, head towards the album’s contents we must keep these ideas in mind; Splendor & Misery is a further continuation of these two genres and its ideas must be understood in that context.

all-black-everything

All Black Everything


The first track of the album, “Long Way Away (Intro)”, is little more than four lines (performed by guest vocalist, Paul Outlaw) and static. However, within these four lines lie the boundaries of our story and, indeed, our first encounter with our protagonist. The intro track effortlessly sets forth our themes: the void of space, a home lost, determination to be free, and a camaraderie between those lost, those enslaved and those yearning for something else:

I’ll follow the stars when the sun goes to bed
‘Til everything I’ve ever known is long dead
I can’t go back home ’cause I want to be free
Someone tell the others what’s become of me

From here, we quickly erupt into “The Breach”. This track, although missing the trademark “it’s Clipping. bitch”, is the equivalent to the opening tracks on previous releases by the group. It features Daveed Diggs‘ furious flow, one of the many modes which he utilizes across Clipping.’s career. Here, the breakneck pace (which is always used to convey distress of some kind, like on “Story 2” from the previous album) paints a scene of struggle; one of the ship’s “cargo” (namely, human slaves) is displaying signs of consciousness. This comes to us from the ship’s AI itself, the second main character and “voice” in the album. We are given privy to its thoughts via what appears to be a status report:

Generally operating normally
A small anomaly has become evident
And probably should be noted
There is spiking in the pulse of a member of the cargo
And the crew and other passengers have not begun to notice

This leads us to mental imagery of holds filled with sleeping slaves, sedated to better facilitate control of them by their guards. To what purpose are they being shipped? One can imagine the brutal Transatlantic Trade Triangle which dominated and motivated the slave trade in past centuries or a more space-opera friendly trope of a war being thought somewhere in space, raising the need for cheap, disposable soldiers. As the conflict escalates and one of the slaves, our protagonist, indeed awakens, this suspicion of some far-off, astral conflict which has raised demand for our slaves is confirmed:

Now: one specifically is up and moving to the door
He has found the access panel situated in the floor
He is entering the codes and overriding has begun
Reading rage in the nervous system, nothing can be done
It seems to circumvent necessity of physical restraints
Send security immediately over to the gate
And remember that these beings were selected for their strength
Use your army sense accordingly in order to be safe

As the guards move on to neutralize our protagonist, Daveed’s verse screeches to a halt as the sounds of conflict take over. Our hero has defeated his guards and begins to make his way through the ship. One assumes that these guards were not unarmed and we know they were forewarned. Therefore, our hero’s prowess and strength are confirmed to us once again, in the very fact that he has defeated them.

 

Naturally, he wishes now to take control of the ship; having escaped from his guards is nothing much if he’s still stranded in a starship beyond his control. “All Black”, perhaps the most lyrically fascinating and accomplished track on the album,  opens with the AI frantically calling for help against the machinations of the freed slave. In its report, we finally receive a name for our hero:

Warning: mothership reporting
Cargo number 2331 has commandeered the vessel
Warning: mothership reporting
Cargo number 2331 is armed and he is dangerous
Warning: mothership reporting
Cargo number 2331 is setting a new course
Warning: mothership reporting
Mothership reporting:

More than that, the psychological profile (and instability) of 2331 (as our hero will henceforth be known) begins to unravel in “All Black”. These inconsistencies in his personality (“the subject seems upset by that to which he is subjected / but convinced he brought it on himself”) are crucial for our understanding of his later actions. Alone, far from home, 2331 is beginning to come to terms with where he is. His war-like nature, his fear, his separation, are leading him to brutal efficiency. He knows someone is coming for him, supposedly his “owners”, and that he cannot trust the very ship he is now in. Therefore, he doesn’t dare give it full control, he doesn’t dare turn on all features and see what this foreign ship can do for him. Instead, he stocks up on weaponry and prepares, sinking further into isolation and madness:

Not turning all keys, he puts the ship through paces
And paces the halls, pacing is madness
Patience is virtuous, patient of these observations
It was all a dream, he poses by the lift outside the mezzanine
Like a photo in a magazine
And always keeps the weapons’ magazines clean
Paranoia prone, he babbles beautifully
Of Babylon and enemies and foes
And forgoing food sustains himself on anger

The middle three lines also begin to hint to us of 2331’s origins. “It was all a dream, he poses by the lift outside the mezzanine / Like a photo in a magazine” is a double reference. First, it’s a reference to The Notorious B.I.G‘s “Juicy” (“It was all a dream, I used to read Word Up! magazine”) one of the most well known opening lines in rap history. But secondly, and perhaps even more important to us, it’s a reference to a different Clipping. track, namely “Dream” from CLPPNG (“It was all a dream / Pictures in Murder Dog magazine”). These references, together with “Babylon” later on and the bible mentioned elsewhere in the track, confirm that 2331 is, in fact, from Earth. This, later on in the track, is confirmed again when 2331 is described as quoting Kendrick Lamar’s infamous verse on Big Sean’s “Control”.

So, we have a human kidnapped into space, to serve as a slave-soldier in some unknown war. But why him? What makes our protagonist so special? “All Black” answers that for us as well; in echoing back to the events of “The Breach”, the track reveals to us that the ship attempted to kill all of the slaves on board in order to prevent this one from rising up. This reminds us of factual practices by slave-traders who, considering slaves “chattel”, would drown entire holds of slaves at the first sign of mutiny. However, the sheer willpower of 2331 has carried him through the attempted assassination and posited him here, in control of the ship.

Something within this one’s different
The others died so easily and he is so persistent
He never did bleed out and fever couldn’t kill his system
Though it was pumped through all the vents
In the event of a total loss of control
He quotes Kendrick’s “Control” verse and spews his vitriol
Into the echoes of the bowels of this floating metal hull

Thus far, we’ve focused on the verse without exploring the hook of the track. However, this hook (or chorus) is one of the most brilliant parts of the track and, indeed, the entire album. Within all four of these hooks, “All black, everything” punctuates the flow and the lyrics. However, each time the phrase means something different. From insanity, to loneliness, to space itself, those three words are used over and over again by Clipping. to describe things which are completely different, lending the track and its setting a momentum which keeps evolving and pushing the track forward. Watch as the third hook spins this phrase into first a description of the beats the ship carries (no beats, that is) then 2331’s degrading psyche, then space itself, then the AI and its original programming and, lastly, the AI’s emerging personality:

The reply is
(All black everything)
His vitals read normal but his face reads murderous
Something hides within the
(All black everything)
He tries, overrides, and he thinks he has been locked out
By some other force in the
(All black everything)
He doesn’t suspect this is the heart that’s been keeping him out
For it has been warned to be
(All black everything)
And in this program to transport nothing more
But he’s unlocked something new inside this
(All black everything)

The third verse is where everything changes. It opens with a reference to Carly Simon (“You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you”) with “so vain he probably thinks this song is about him / All songs are about him”. Within the first lines is also contained the method which 2331 is going to use to escape his imagined/real pursuers. Disregarding his own sanity and any hopes of ever going home, he puts himself into extended hypersleep while the ship’s FTL drives (supposedly, we’re never given any hard information on its propulsion system) incessantly jump farther and farther away (“His bouts of stasis are torture / He feels them not, like a brief sleep / While ship’s clocks count millennia”).

This method of travel is a staple of space-opera (for one of its most successful iterations, check out the many stories of the “go-captains” in Cordwainer Smith‘s “The Instrumentality of Mankind”). However, consider the tragedy of this solution. 2331’s home is now, irrevocably, gone. Even if he were able to retrace his route, “ship’s clocks count millennia”. Nothing he has known will survive. In all likelihood, he won’t even recognize humanity; while he was stuck in hypersleep the world, culture, home and family he had known sped away into the future without him. This poignant aspect of space travel was often portrayed as positive and exciting in the hard science fiction of the 40’s and 50’s. However, true to the New Wave of Science Fiction, Splendor & Misery explores its more brutal and punishing aspects.

 In addition, we must not forget that he is not the only one on the ship. The ship’s AI was never designed to go this far and probably never designed to remain “awake” for so long. Remember, it is the ship’s clocks that count millennia, thus hinting at the fact that it remains active through all of this time. In addition, the previous hook taught us that 2331 has unlocked something new in an AI that was only meant for transport; some part of the computer is developing affection for its cargo. Should that surprise us? Not at all. Consider the fact that the AI is in the same predicament as our hero: it has been flung far away from purpose, context, meaning and society. More than that is revealed to us at the end of this verse; the AI is lonely:

If only he realized this ship is more than metal
There’s friendship in the wiring, and so lonely
If only he realized this ship has many levels
There’s pleasure in here hiding, come find it
Don’t mind this frame, time has made stranger bedfellows
Made foes lovers before, there’s no reason to torture yourself further

Love is now first introduced into the mix. Taking care of 2331 for thousands of years, constantly open to his pain, his loneliness, his guilt and his madness has led the AI to love him. More than that, something about the way in which 2331 avoided pillaging everything, leaving something of the ship to itself, must have changed the way it thought of their relationship. Lastly, the vast spans of time that neither of them were ever designed to handle have probably worked their way into whatever failsafes there were and allowed the AI to feel these things. Thus, the basic duo of the album has been established; the rest of the story, apart from a few departures and tangents, revolves around their effort to find a place for themselves in the darkness, a place they can be together. “All Black” ends with a brilliant and emotional take on the intro, with the AI once again reporting to its masters, containing all that it now feels and fears:

Warning: mothership reporting
This will be the last report, turn back, everything is fine
Warning: mothership reporting
Cargo number 2331 is not a danger, let him be
Warning: mothership reporting
If you continue to pursue there will be no choice but to destroy you
Warning: mothership reporting
This love will be defended at all costs, do not fuck with it

The next track, “Interlude 01 (Freestyle)” is one of the most belligerent tracks on the album. It also ties into “All Black”; essentially, it’s the same verses that the ship notes 2331 mumbles to himself as he paces the ship. In it, he addresses his pursuers from out of the depths of space that he’s in, promising his revenge and boasting of his abilities while constantly referencing to other hip-hop works (“word on the radio, I’m a suspect” is a reference to Que‘s “OG Bobby Johnson“, while “Do you wanna ride or die” is a reference to 2Pac’sHail Mary”) and classic science fiction (“Turn your whole bridge into Room 101” is a reference to George Orwell‘s “1984”).  It’s a quick, violent and short-lived dive into the mind of 2331 as he casts his violence on the entire universe and the men who are coming for him but also making sure they understand that he didn’t start this fight but he’s willing to see it to the end rather than return to being a slave:

The enemy, called the first shot on the first ship to be
Free from your trade, I’m a traitor, so be it
If you took all you have and flew off to where no one could see
Word on the radio, I’m a suspect
Yeah you know the name ho, come get
Some if you want it but it ain’t no fun
Turn your whole bridge into Room 101
That one you son for the “yes sir, no ma’am”
Know I’m damn near nothing bout ’em, boy ’bout it
Heard him shoutin’, right? Yup!
Told ’em how he ride? Uh-huh
Head bustin’ shit, fuck it, turn to ride, let ’em know, click!

Moving on, “Wake Up” shares “Interlude 01 (Freestyle)”‘s retrospective and also fills in some of the blanks established by “All Black”. However, this track is mostly from the ship’s perspective, as it examines 2331 during his hypersleep. It begins with the ship reiterating the causes for such extreme measures of sleep; there’s little to no chance of finding a planet that can even support life out there in the great nothingness that is most of the universe. Even if he does find such a planet, nothing and no one he has known will be there. So, there’s no real choice left but to blow all precaution to the wind and set the ship to jump as often as possible, while 2331’s life is slowed down as much as possible:

The chance that he ever reaches any place
Suitable to support life in his lifetime’s pretty low
(Get low) Pretty low, (Get low) pretty low, (Get low) pretty low (Get low)
And the chances of him of ever seeing anybody
That he knows are even lower so he’s making up his mind to just go
(Let go) Just go, (Let go) just go, (Let go) just go (Let go)
So it’s one shot in the arm (One shot in the arm)
Hazy in the head (Hazy in the head)
Set the timer once (Set the timer once)
Lay down in the bed (Lay down and)
Close the hatch trying to clear your mind
Cause nightmares and alarms blowing kill the time
If you have a God say something sublime
Deep breath and leave it behind you ready to
(Jump) Be right here when you wake up

The ship’s concern and love is palpable on the last line, which is repeated four times and then twisted into “There’ll be no here when you wake up”, alluding to the FTL jumps the ship will be making while 2331 sleeps. From there the perspective shifts into those nightmares the previous verse had described. The ship is monitoring 2331’s brainwaves and detects “an artifact”, namely an unexplained spike in activity which we humans can attribute to a nightmare. Fascinated, the ship dives in, via simulation probably, and experiences 2331’s nightmare. This dream includes snippets of his memories on Earth, people he has loved and childhood recollections, now so far away:

Didn’t you know
Happiness is waiting at your door
In a sleek black dress and a kiss that says “hello”
And a thick black mess and a mom that says “don’t go”
And a cul-de-sac so cold it’ll hold you close when the
Stores all close and the clothes so thin to begin with
When the wind rips they blow

As this perhaps first part of the album closes, we know more of 2331 than we did when we set out. His loneliness isn’t born of just space; he had a love and a mother but also a rough childhood, with thin clothes and a cul-de-sac to keep him company. Now, he’s lost in a different kind of cul-de-sac, locked into an impossible situation, his life wasting away underneath the frigid winds of space itself.

In our next installment, we’ll be looking at the middle of the album, where 2331 starts to grasp the war that has been tearing the galaxy apart, joins it himself and finally starts to come up with a solution to this life, his loss and his love for the ship itself.

Click here to read the second installment

 

Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.