GREATEST: Pusha T and Malice of Clipse
Uncompromising as ever, the legacy rap duo is forging a new vision for the first time in more than a decade.
“Playas, we ain’t the same,” Clipse begins on their 2002 album, Lord Willin’. Barely six seconds into the project’s runtime, declarations of self, elevations of craft, a connoisseur’s eye for extravagance and an insider’s attention to detail have already crystallized: “I’m into ’caine and guns/Chopard with the fishes, make the facelift numb.” From there, the Brothers Thornton drop two minutes of hook-free verses that are chilling in their gaze and astounding for the sheer amount of novel couplets—a sneering sophistication of rhyme that showcases a love of wordcraft atop mountains of disdain. “Cats act as if rap fell in my lap/I’ve suffered heartbreak many times back-to-back,” they rap. “And still feel belittled, sittin’ here spittin’ riddles amongst clown-ass rappers who tend to give me the giggles.”
Hailing from Virginia—which became not just a homebase but a motif and co-defendant in their music—Malice and Pusha T introduced commercial hip-hop to unforeseen levels of sophistication regarding fashion and flyness, worldview and wordplay, and, most notably, the allure of being enraptured by success in the drug game. Their bond of blood brotherhood and shared experiences was encapsulated within a yin and yang equilibrium, with younger brother Pusha being more flashy and unrepentant, and Malice more distant and remorseful.
Even with all this going for them, Clipse have one of the more shattered discographies in hip-hop. Their first completed album, Exclusive Audio Footage, was never released in stores. Corporate mergers soon left them in label limbo, causing them to begin the lauded We Got It 4 Cheap mixtape series as part of the Re-Up Gang—a quartet of rappers who put together words like they had both nothing and everything to lose. Their 2006 album, Hell Hath No Fury, found the duo differentiating themselves from the artistic landscape they helped pioneer but were not able to partake in due to contractual disputes. Despite being widely considered one of the year’s best rap releases, organizational restructuring soon found Clipse prepared to release their next studio album, Til the Casket Drops, on yet another record label.
As if to prove the point, in 2010, their former manager was sentenced to prison for being the leader of a $20 million drug ring. “They were picking up all our friends at different times,” Malice expressed in a 2016 interview where he recalled his friends being arrested in front of their children. “We didn’t know who was going to get picked up next. They were kicking in doors and making mommas and wives get on the floor. It was just crazy.” The legal fears, his own conscience and a return to a relationship with God led Malice to step away from rap music—even going as far as to rebrand himself as No Malice and releasing a book and a documentary about his journey.
It was at this point that Clipse’s publicist-turned-manager Steven Victor was faced with the task of establishing Pusha T as a solo artist. Victor—whose Victor Victor Worldwide would steer the career of the late Pop Smoke to record-breaking heights—guided Pusha to creative and executive relationships with powerful cultural forces, including Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music and adidas. But it was Pusha who forged a solo canon that now includes two Grammy-nominated albums: 2018’s Daytona and 2022’s It’s Almost Dry.
The latter achieved the dream of being jointly produced by West and Pharrell Williams, and is likely to go down as the only project in history to have that particular authorship. “You can live forever when the shit you write is timeless,” he snarls on “I Pray For You,” a song from the album that put him in the studio for public consumption with his brother for the first time in almost 15 years. “The record deals showed me ignorance was bliss,” raps Malice, adding: “X told you hell is hot/I told you repent.”
Amidst gearing up for their return to the forefront of hip-hop with a new album, Clipse sits down with Steven Victor for an on-the-record dialogue about their past, present and future. The natural dichotomy between the brothers remains an inextricable balance. Being true to themselves is par for the course. Time will tell how the rap game reacts to a tandem that has always made space for itself on its own terms. For their part, Pusha and Malice aren’t showing any signs of insecurity. They soft-launched a song while using Paris’ Pont Neuf as a catwalk for Pharrell’s inaugural Louis Vuitton collection, while a who’s who of hip-hop, including JAY-Z and Beyoncé, head-nodded, as did LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault. Playas, you ain’t the same.