Between label setbacks and its ex-manager's legal case, rap duo the Clipse has weathered its share of drama. Instead of wallowing in self-pity or anger, however, the brothers (Gene "Malice" and Terrence "Pusha T" Thornton) are reveling in the fresh start afforded by their third album, "Til the Casket Drops" (Re-Up/Columbia; Dec. 8).
"We've come through the fire," Malice says. "Thanks to our fans, we're still here."
"Til the Casket Drops" revisits the drug and crime themes the Clipse lyrically addressed to critical acclaim on its first two albums. But whereas 2002's "Lord Willin' " was more easygoing and 2006's "Hell Hath No Fury" was much darker, "Casket" strikes a balance between those two moods.
Peaking at No. 27 on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, its lead single, "I'm Good" -- produced by longtime collaborator Pharrell Williams (half of the production duo the Neptunes) -- captures the pair's survivor spirit. Chosen to build on the "Good" momentum is the head-bobbing hood anthem "Popular Demand (Popeyes)." Featuring fellow rap stalwart Cam'Ron, the mixshow track was also produced by Williams. Additional guests include Keri Hilson on "All Eyes on Me" and Kanye West on the project's setup single, "Kinda Like a Big Deal."
Meanwhile, the Clipse go dark and gritty with "Door Man," where Pusha T raps, "If the good die young, then the greats go to jail . . . I miss my Tony." The verse references former manager Anthony Gonzalez, who recently struck a plea deal on a federal drug conspiracy charge and is due to be sentenced in January. The duo is now managed by Steven Victor for William Victor Management and Yaneley Arty.
"This album is full of unhandcuffed drive and energy," Pusha T says of "Casket," which also features production by DJ Khalil and Sean C & LV. "We popped out of our usual element with the Neptunes, but it still has all the realness the Clipse are known for."
After an Elektra debut album was shelved in the late '90s, the Virginia Beach, Va., natives hit No. 1 R&B/hip-hop pay dirt with their 2002 Star Trak/Arista bow, "Lord Willin'." But the pair's momentum was halted in 2004 when its second album, "Hell Hath No Fury," got caught up in Arista's merger into sister label Jive Records. Owing to contractual stipulations, the Clipse stayed with Jive while the Neptunes' remaining Star Trak roster moved to Interscope.
An agreement was reached in 2006 for the Clipse to release "Hell" on its own Re-Up Records through Jive; a year later the duo left Jive and signed with Columbia. To date, "Lord Willin' " (featuring hit singles "Grindin' " and "When the Last Time") has sold 959,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "Hell" stands at 205,000 units.
The chief element of Columbia/Sony Music's marketing push behind "Casket," Columbia VP product marketing Liz Hausle says, is the company's first apparel alliance with retailer Downtown Locker Room. The partnership will roll out an exclusive line of "I'm Good" Clipse T-shirts in its 70 stores during release week. The storewide campaign encompasses prime window space, banners tying in the album with the T-shirt line and a promotional mixtape CD. The T-shirt is separate from the Clipse's own Play Cloths apparel line. Celebrating its one-year anniversary, that brand boasts such fans as Jay-Z and Lupe Fiasco.
On the Clipse's immediate schedule are several high-profile appearances: the Bayou Classic in New Orleans (Nov. 28), mtvU's Woodie Awards (airing Dec. 4) and the "106 & Park" New Year's Eve bash on BET ("106 & Party"). A major 2010 tour is also being planned.
"The machine is there now and it's rolling in our favor," Malice says.
Pusha T adds, "It's fresh; no drama, no chains. This is our victory lap."