A long time ago, thug-rap often included lyricism. People like Nas, Raekwon, Mobb Deep, and a host of others, used poetic devices like metaphors, similes, and complex rhyme schemes while claiming to shoot 8 Columbian cartel kingpins before breakfast and bragging about completing multimillion dollar drug deals on crystal phones while taking bubble baths with four exotic women. Then rap that was much more aimed at crossing over took over. But then two brothers Thornton from Virginia brought lyricism back to gangsta rap, over a sparse percussion-only instrumental from The Neptunes.
This intro (which may be revisionist but it’s how I remember things), is necessary because Clipse reinvigorated my hope for mainstream gangsta rap. Their “I really did/do sell drugs” shtick plus Neptunes beats and East Coast lyricism was exactly what I needed at that time. Given this history, their current separated status is somewhat hard for me to accept. Malice is born-again Christian now and has prefixed his name with “No” to signal his new, much more positive direction, while Pusha T has descended further into being an unapologetic dealer with an overinflated sense of his own cleverness. With this obvious creative tension, I’m not expecting another Clipse album, ever. So I’m left to make do with solo albums. I pretty much hated Pusha’s My Name is My Name, how about No Malice’s Hear Ye Him?
Well…I don’t like it. It was a pain to listen to over and over to fully form this opinion. But more than slogging through it, what really sucks is that I feel bad for having this opinion. As much as I rail against albums with nothing to say, it sucks to find one with a lot to say but that fails this much at being enjoyable. Even more than that, it sucks to face overwhelming evidence that Clipse is better left as a memory.
Now I’m supposed to explain why I didn’t like Hear Ye Him. Let’s get this over with…
The rhymes are bad. No Malice was always the wittiest of Clipse, but it seems that he really lost a step during this transition to gospel-rap. There are some flashes of his old talent, but too often his poor flow choices and strong-as-Popeye-before-spinach punchlines glaringly shine. Maybe he’s too focused on telling his story, but then why try lines like these from Unforgettable:
you should learn from me, I suffered for my wrongs
they nose still running like a marathon
First of all, that’s gross. Second of all, the punch isn’t clever enough to justify its existence. It almost brags about the past that No Malice is now supposed to be ashamed of, as in “crackheads still feel the effects of the coke I sold years ago!” Third, since it isn’t clever, and it muddies No Malice’s message, it must have been put there in an attempt to quickly end the verse on something of a high note. It failed. I don’t remember No Malice having this problem back in the Clipse days.
At other times No Malice is just waaaaayyy too straightforward. Hear Ye Him especially has this problem, but every time he’s not talking about his drug dealing past, he has a message and he hits his point right on the nose. Repeatedly. Exactly on the nose. These verses could be halved and the message would stay intact. Note that this is the kind of opposite of the problem that I have with J. Cole’s meandering rhymes. These poor rhymes exacerbate the problem that…
The beats aren’t terrible…just…very much not what I want. Several of the instrumentals, like Smoke and Mirrors, have the bass and drums that might be expected from a hip-hop song, and these are actually pretty good. As for the others, they mostly fall into two groups. Some attempt to be grand, such as Hear Ye Him and its huge horns, which fails because the overall beat is way too simple. The only switch it has is dropping most of the horns during the verses, but then you’re left with the simplistic piano and drum loop. Other songs are darker but still too simple. Bow Down No Mo is one of these, and it continues the sad pattern of dropping instruments so the verse is mostly drums, and calling that a variation in the beat.
As you probably have guessed, The Neptunes are sorely missed. Even when Chad Hugo does a song by himself, No Time, he fails to draw interest and I can’t help but wonder how much better it would sound with Pharrell’s help.
So with boring beats and wack rhymes, all I’m left to appreciate is…
The message is overbearing. Damnit! 0 for 3! I really appreciate what No Malice is trying to do here. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, because I so often complain about mindless hip-hop. And making rap with a strong message is hard. I get that, especially because there are very few prominent examples of it being done well. So No Malice gets as much credit as possible for trying. But this review is about his album, not him as a person.
Anyway, it is possible to have too much message. This happens when your music isn’t aesthetically enjoyable, so all the listener has left is absorbing the topic of the lyrics. And if that topic isn’t dealt with in an interesting way, it better change pretty often. Neither happens much on Hear Ye Him.
No Malice has really just one theme to spread across 11 songs, his transformation from cocaine to Christianity. On paper, that’s more than enough for an album. But he sells his story short by being extremely straightforward (see the rhymes point above). For instance, at least one song should have focused on his manager’s drug conviction. It seems to be the biggest reason for No Malice’s turn to God. Instead it’s mentioned in a few places, at so high a level that it loses much of its impact. I wish he had taken his time telling this story, and had made it much more vivid. Even if legal reasons stopped him from writing about the actual drug dealing in detail, the court case and its aftermath are ripe with untouched storytelling possibilities.
His relationship with Pusha T is another topic that’s underserved. The two came into rap together, and built such a great name and legacy in Clipse. I’d love to find out how their interactions have changed, and how No Malice feels about Pusha’s “stay the drug-rap course” creative direction. Instead, he just says that they aren’t “at odds” and that he still wants to see Pusha win. What that really means, in concrete language, is left for me to judge. But I don’t want to make up my own answer! Why won’t you just tell me?! Another interesting opportunity is wasted.
Also damning is the forceful evangelizing that happens much, much, much too often on Hear Ye Him. No one wants to be told how to live his/her life, and when it’s done with all the subtlety described two paragraphs above, it gets pretty annoying. Also, this part of Christianity has never sat well with me. I’d rather be given options and reasoned with rather than being told what to do with my life and soul.
Verdict: Hear Ye Him tried to merge No Malice’s Christian views with hip-hop and barely escaped being a complete stinker. Like the Bible says, serving two masters is impossible. So this album ends up being much more gospel than rap, to the detriment of its entertainment and replay values. I liked hearing Malice’s stories, but a simple interview could have served that purpose with less frustration. Even so, this album is more interesting than Pusha’s My Name is My Name, so I kind of hope Malice keeps rhyming and has a lot more fun on his next outing. But I don’t have high hopes that that will happen, so yup, better left as a memory.
- Smoke and Mirrors (featuring a good Ab-Liva verse and haunting background singing, easily the best song on the album)
- Shame the Devil (features Pusha T but save yourself the trouble of getting excited for a reunion. His one verse is half-length)