In the years since their 2002 debut, Clipse has carved out one of the most distinctive niches in music: loved by critics, overlooked by the masses, low on flash, and single-minded in their lyrics. Alternating between powerhouse albums and copyright-violating, hits-mining mixtapes, they've made art out of rapping about selling cocaine, something that had been done before but never with such dexterity and focus.
That had to end sometime. Last year's Road to Till the Casket Drops was, like We Got It 4 Cheap, Volume 3, another disappointing mixtape, the prelude to another endlessly delayed album. It also strained their signature emphasis on shoptalk, with clever metaphors and double entendres becoming increasingly scarce.
Til the Casket Drops eschews most of the drug talk, which would be promising if it didn't give way to such standard brag-and-boast narrative. It also kicks to the curb one of the things that made the duo stand out: There was insecurity on their last two mix tapes, mostly about low album sales, but here it's not exactly clear how they feel about their evolution. When Malice concludes that he just "gave the critics something to jerk off to" after the strangely personal first verse of opener "Freedom," it's hard to tell if he's referring to their reappearance or the change in tone, and whether it's a boast or an anxious suspicion of those critics waiting for them to stumble.
Other narrative poses, like the gritty "There Was a Murder," which tries out the blow-by-blow storytelling that Ghostface does so well, don't exactly work either. There's a continuous sense that the two are at a loss for topics, and the songs here have a shiftless, preoccupied feel as a result. Their skill as lyricists allows them to muddle through, but with none of the cold-blooded verve of previous albums.
It also doesn't help how closely their destinies are tied to the Neptunes. Producers and rappers seem to have an equal flameout ratio, and the combination of the two as a married team (the Neptunes handle almost two-thirds of the songs here) increases the probability of this happening to one side of the equation. It also stifles creativity. By now the Neptunes's wheels are noticeably spinning, as they peddle the same squiggly lounge beats with slight variations, and this leaves even strong songs like "I'm Good" feeling derivative. Clipse seemed much more comfortable on Road, nesting inside the work of others. Casket provides no such comfort, finding them without their usual subject matter or a strong musical backbone, resulting in a clear sense of discomfort.