"You, my son, will be blessed forever," tweeted Pusha T in late July. The rapper's benediction was sent to a young kid who had shared a photograph of his face bearing a large tattoo of the logo for Play Cloths, the clothing company in part founded by Pusha and his brother Malice back when they recorded as the Clipse. The image is captivating in its grotesqueness, highlighted by Pusha's hashtag, "#IKnowTheFlawsOfAllMyChildrenAndYouArePerfect."
He came off like he was preaching, but these days it's his brother, who has since renamed himself No Malice, who seems like the Clipse member more likely to deliver a sermon: Since the heights of the group, No Malice found religion while Pusha found ’Ye and his GOOD Music fashion emporium. But while the aura of No Malice's newly discovered Christianity exists in the background of his solo album Hear Ye Him, it's a record that's more about freeing yourself from surface falsehoods than anything like a forced religious listen. And it's an album I wish the kid with the Play Cloths tattoo could hear.
The 17 songs that make up Hear Ye Him present No Malice as an artist who raps like he's thrown off the fraudulent trappings of the music industry. Instead of relaying his past white powder transgressions with a smirk, he recounts them with an honest regret. On the stirring title track he raps, "I should have been dead a long time ago/ I offered death in almost every line I wrote/ Camouflaged it and act like I had offered hope/ The gold chain was steady hanging, [n----s] choked/ My older brother was my hero 'til he started dope/ Wish I could have stopped his very first line of coke/ But I don't judge, we all got a guilty pleasure/ And bless my momma heart, she still believe he getting better/ That's faith." Then he quips, "My conscience is speaking kinda loud lately."
This openness continues throughout Hear Ye Him. No Malice raps like someone who couldn't care less what the rest of what has become the rap record industry thinks of him. He's lived a life that by most accounts is full of authentic connections to the world of peddling drugs. But he doesn't feel the need to keep up the façade that he's still involved in that world just to sell records. On "Different," he sounds gleeful as he points out, "25-to life, that's right, go 'head, count ’em up/ Tony got 400 months, you do the algebra." Then he confesses, "Funny how things unfold/ The way I once thought it's so troubling my soul."
There's a freeness of conscience to No Malice's lyrics that's invigorating. His flow might be a little more parsimonious than when he rapped in tandem with Pusha as Clipse; the lines are often shorter, meant more as statements than flights of fancy. But he pulls no punches with his sentiments. His relationship with his brother is dealt with openly. "Pusha, I'm the first to admit I wanna see you win/ But when we die I wanna know I'm-a see you again," he says at one point, while on the Clipse reunion of sorts, the S1-produced "Shame the Devil," the duo go back and forth with themes of mortality swaddled in religious references. (The Clipse's grandmother, who has been a theme of songs in the past, is also referenced.) The reflective Chad Hugo-crafted "No Time," which closes out the album, has No Malice lamenting, "The things that I once loved/ I now find myself ashamed of/ In the game we done came up/ But we ain't all have the same luck/ Some of us heard the gavel slam/ With all that snow came an avalanche/ Did we ever really stand a chance?/ Well know it's out of our hands/ Mercy."
Despite the way No Malice's solo career has been commonly presented through a singular lens of religion, truthfully Hear Ye Him isn't that different to the music he's made before. It's not a full-on sermon and much of it will sound like familiar territory for anyone who ever appreciated a Clipse album for the astoundingly broad bodies of work they are. Hear Ye Him is in the lineage of closing Clipse album cuts like "I'm Not You" and "Nightmares" -- or even Pusha's mixtape confessionals "Alone In Vegas" and "I Am Forgiven." No Malice is just a little more blunt and resolute in expressing his opinion. The album also brings to mind the strong rap voices of another era when rappers seemed freer to talk critically about the behavior of their peers; it's telling that No Malice weaves in references to KRS-One and X-Clan's Brother J, not the latest M.M.G. urchin. (The stripped-down and fiery "Blasphemy" sounds like nothing more than an Edutainment-era Boogie Down Productions song.)
Maybe it's a quirk of timing, but that image of the kid with the Play Cloths face tattoo has usurped the official blood-stained cover of Hear Ye Him in my head. No one knows the kid's motivation for branding his face but it resonates like a horrid reminder of the superficial nature of the industry that surrounds rap music. Even your favorite artists are quick to perpetuate the fraud. On "Different," No Malice takes a stand: "Louis this/ Gucci that/ Shut up, you sound dumb/ I know where I'm from/ I'm chief sinner/ I'm no better -- just got a different agenda." That might be considered self-righteous preaching these days, or it might be appreciated as a hard truth, but however you take it, No Malice is relaying a message that's worth hearing.