CAMBRIDGE -- Hell hath no fury like rap stars trapped in record company purgatory -- which explains a lot about "Hell Hath No Fury," the title of Virginia -based duo Clipse's long-awaited second album and tour, which kicked off at the Middle East on Monday.
Discovered and mentored by studio guru Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes , Clipse hit big with "Grindin'," the first single from the pair's critically acclaimed 2002 debut, "Lord Willin'." But Clipse's career was paralyzed by legal roadblocks following a major-label merger, and brothers Pusha T and Malice (a.k.a. Gene and Terrence Thornton ) largely dropped off the radar for four years. During their forced (and well-publicized) hiatus, they issued a series of mixtapes and set up their own label, Re-Up.
"Hell Hath No Fury," which finally came out in November, is one of the leanest, coldest collection of beats in recent memory -- uber-minimalist even by the Neptunes' standards -- and Clipse's set at the Middle East was just as sparse. Even earlier material was given the blunt-force treatment; "Hot Damn" was made of a hammering beat and a keyboard squiggle. "Grindin' " -- like the bulk of Clipse's catalog, a bleak travelogue of the drug trade -- was nearly avant-garde onstage, reduced to a harsh thump and bursts of canned horns. "Ride Around Shining" rallied around a gaunt bass line and celestial synth loop.
Backed by a skilled, unobtrusive DJ and a couple of sedate guest MCs, Pusha T and Malice eschewed swagger -- although they joked with the audience about the rampant "swagger-jacking" in this business -- in favor of a hard, languid flow. The brothers' voices weave and layer in tuneless harmony, and the new tracks "Mr. Me Too," "Dirty Money," and "Keys Open Doors" were more like sinewy chants than hip-hop anthems. Devoid of bluster (and melodies and hooks) and vaguely exotic-sounding, Clipse takes a tired topic and reinvigorates the brand with surprising wordplay -- equal parts guilt and glee -- and modern musicianship. By set's end, Clipse seemed most remarkable for what they don't do: filler.