Album Assignments: Splendor & Misery

[This review is indebted to the transcribers and annotators of Genius.]

It’s been a very good decade for exploring the African-American experience via genre metaphors. We’ve got Janelle Monáe and her stories of Cindi Mayweather the android. N.K. Jemisin won three consecutive Hugo awards for her extraordinary Broken Earth trilogy. In movies, Jordan Peele uses horror tropes to incredible effect in the brilliantly written Get Out and Us, while Black Panther proved that not only is there room in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for an Afrofuturistic superhero, there is an incredible hunger for it. In another corner of the superhero world, the HBO Watchmen series pulled off a succession of astonishing narrative feats by putting race at the center of the Watchmen universe and rebooting the ways we can think about it.

Then there’s clipping., the experimental hip-hop group from Los Angeles, with a period at the end of their name. They’re fronted by Daveed Diggs, who’s best known for playing Jefferson and Lafayette in the original cast of Hamilton. While not as high-profile as the examples above, they too have been twice nominated for Hugo awards, in a category usually reserved for television episodes and long-form music videos. This album, Splendor And Misery, was the first of those nominations, and it absolutely belongs in the conversation with every example from my first paragraph.

Album cover for Splendor & Misery

Splendor & Misery starts with a low, spacey drone and scattered static. (Static recurs throughout the album — more about that in a bit.) A distorted voice (guest vocalist Paul Outlaw) sings a thesis verse:

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

Then in comes Diggs, rapping at a furious pace in a calm voice. He’s a ship’s computer, narrating the fact that “a member of the cargo” has woken up. A member of the cargo? Yeah, this is a slave ship. Before a sedative can be pumped through the vents, the “cargo” has found an access panel and is taking control of the ship. (“Remember that these beings were selected for their strength”, chides the computer.)

That leads into the bedrock story song, “All Black”. It begins, “Warning: mothership reporting / Cargo number 2331 has commandeered the vessel / Warning: mothership reporting / Cargo number 2331 is armed and he is dangerous”. It goes on from there, still in the computer’s voice, to tell the story of that seizure, returning over and over to the phrase “all black everything”. Those three words are an incredibly rich centerpiece for the song. They hearken back to a verse on Jay-Z’s “Run This Town”, which was then expanded upon by Lupe Fiasco in an alternate history song that imagines a world where slavery never existed. In the Splendor & Misery context, they variously mean the emptiness of the ship, the defiant war cry of the rebelling slave, the endless reaches of space, the darkness of artificial night, and the consciousness of the ship itself.

Within that consciousness, a surprising turn happens in the course of the song. In watching the psychological torment of Cargo #2331, as it sees him experience “the gift of freedom wrapped in days of rapping to himself / until his vocal cords collapse”, the ship begins to fall in love with him. It sees his loneliness and recognizes its own, saying “If only he realized this ship is more than metal / There’s friendship in the wiring”. By the end, the ship has reversed its initial message:

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

Thus begins a strange relationship that lasts through the album. The story becomes a little harder to follow after this. 2331 (who never gets any other name) appears in several interludes, rapping freestyle behind heavy static. That static, a bit like the Black Keys’ distortion, creates distance. It’s an audio cue that the signal is far away, barely strong enough to reach us.

In “Wake”, 2331 seems to decide not to try to return home, opting instead for travel via hypersleep. That song ends with that same verse that opened the album, which leads immediately into “Long Way Away”, which adds another verse with that same melody, ending each with “It’s a long way away / It’s a long way away / And I’m all alone / Along, along a long way”.

So here we have the premise. The machinery of slavery uproots innocents from their lives, but when the slave rises up, the machinery becomes infatuated with him and what he produces. For the slave himself, the price of his freedom is total isolation, except for the complicated relationship he has with his (former?) oppressor. No matter what, he is forever severed from the home and life he knew, and rage, depression and violence must ensue. But there is hope at the end — “A Better Place” once again brings in the “long way away” melody and motif, but sees 2331 and the ship setting a course for that better place, with a spark of belief that they can find it.

There’s more going on here than a self-contained story. For one thing, the album very consciously engages with a science fiction literary tradition, and particularly a black SF tradition. In a freestyle rap, 2331 references Orwell’s 1984. In another, he says “got a pocket full of stars”, referencing Samuel Delaney’s Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand. “Air ‘Em Out” references Delaney, Octavia Butler, M. John Harrison, and Ursula K. LeGuin. “True Believer” name-checks a character from Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy. The title of the album itself appears in “A Better Place” as the computer muses that 2331 is “missing the splendor and misery / Of bodies, of cities, of being missed” — The Splendor And Misery Of Bodies, Of Cities is the planned but never finished sequel to Stars In My Pocket.

That intellectual engagement is wonderful and thrilling, but there are other, more mysterious levels at work here. Take “Story 5” for instance. This track seems totally out of place on the album, in multiple ways — not only does it seemingly have nothing to do with the 2331 story, it’s also a pure gospel tune. It tells the story of a woman named Grace who fought in a war, uncovered some shady information, and was subsequently run down by a taxi and killed. What? Also, “Story 5”? What happened to the other 4?

Well, it turns out that there’s a song called “story” on clipping.’s debut album midcity, which tells the story of the taxi crash from the viewpoint of an onlooker named Randy. “Story 2”, about a former criminal, appears on their next album. Story 3 is missing, but Story 4 appears, for some reason, on a remix album by alt-J, featuring different characters but images that echo the other Story songs.

So apparently “Story 5” is part of a thread running through various clipping. albums, more than an organic part of Splendor & Misery. But there are layers upon layers here, because in the middle of “True Believer”, the static comes in staccato sequence, which turns out to be Morse code. (Which code gets referenced in “Air ‘Em Out” as well.) The coded message says: GRACEISRANDYSSISTER. Grace is Randy’s sister.

Even more mysterious, the song “Interlude 02 (Numbers)” imitates the style of a numbers station with a long string of NATO alphabet letters: “Foxtrot, Uniform, Whiskey, Romeo, Whiskey, Charlie, Oscar, X-Ray”, and so on. Gibberish? Not on a clipping. album. As the incredibly dedicated Genius user TheRingshifter figured out, this is a code too, a Vigenère cipher which requires a keyword. “Air ‘Em Out” yields the secret in its verse:

Come up off your smooth talk, playa this raspy (ahem)
You stuck on Morse code, playa, this is ASCII
Your birthright make you scared to get nasty
The keyword is Kemmer, that’s what yo’ ass need

Plugging the keyword “kemmer” (itself a LeGuin reference) into the cipher yields the text “THETARGETISAMYCLARK”. The target is Amy Clark. Who is Amy Clark? We don’t know… yet. Though there is a “Doc Clark” referenced in “Story 2”. There’s a clipping. album subsequent to Splendor & Misery, and while its “Story 7” (again skipping the multiples of 3) tells us more about Randy and a character from “Story 4”, there’s no Amy Clark.

To unravel this puzzle, we’ll just have to wait for more clues. With clipping., the deeper you dive the more you find — there’s so much more to discover in this all black everything.

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