All black everything.
These three ominous words are repeated throughout the song All Black, and serve as the sinister, cold main motif of the concept album. clipping.’s Splendor & Misery is a metaphor: an Afrofuturist memory that uses science-fiction to retell the Atlantic slave trade, making use of the genre’s surgical and chilling vocabularies. Listeners can voyeuristically witness the protagonist’s solitude through a deliberated, minimalist sonic cartography, mapping out the ship this story’s protagonist survives on.
The record opens with the tracks Long Way Away (intro) and The Breach. The first is a hallowing, hall-sung melody that reverberates through the metal insides of the spaceship, or maybe an abandoned church. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to claim this is how interstellar gospel sounds. The Breach is the rapid diction of main lyricist and rapper Daveed Diggs narrating the malfunction of the cryogenic device containing, restraining the album’s protagonist, Cargo#2331, who remains unnamed; a constant reminder of his stripped humanity. He breaks free, and all hell breaks loose.
Within two minutes the third track All Black starts, told from the perspective of the ship’s A.I. The listener is made to bear witness to Cargo#2331’s solitude and his attempts at regimenting the psychology, existentialism, and consequential reality of ‘having escaped’. The album on the whole follows a structure of gospel, surveillance, and catharsis. In All Black, the A.I. narrates vignettes of Cargo#2331’s life, who has fallen into a schedule of idiosyncratic (read: human) rituals. He requests the A. I. for a beat to rap to, a cultural artefact he clings to, a cling to sanity. The computer, who is never gendered, slowly begins to feel affection for him in its circuitry. At the end of the song, it warns all pursuers that everyone who dares to “fuck with [this love]” will be destroyed. This love, however, is not a heteroromantic one (avoiding ‘sexual’ because no man gonna fuck some circuit boards). It’s the onset of Stockholm Syndrome.
Interlude 01 (freestyle) is the fourth track. A recording of Cargo#2331 freestyle-rapping about his lonely predicament. It serves as the first exposé we have of his psyche, told from his perspective. His language is distinct from the A.I., whereas it is verbose and analytical, his vocabulary is vernacular, colourful, black-coded. His blackness is made concrete through these recordings, they are archives of his existence, of him having broken the chains of slavery but without a future to veer to. Wake Up starts, a song that cycles through bouts of cryogenic sleep, pleads for call or response, and hyperdrive jumps.
“Be right here when you wake up,” the computer assures. Is it an assurance?
Long Way Away is a direct continuation of the title track. It fills us with the harmonic melodies of a strong, all-male choir. Immediately I draw parallels to the slave songs that boundpeople sang that survived the Atlantic passage. The audio quality, contrasting Cargo#2331’s personal recordings, is pristine, perfect in dreamlike vividity. In this album, the memory of the Atlantic slave trade is echoed in a new vocabulary: void replaces seas, metal replaces wood, and cryogenic storage replaces brutal hulls and dirty planks. Spirituality, however, is ageless, providing a small sanctuary, a black history that is shared and that is eternal.
“There’s no use in crying, no reason to wait[…]And pray that your children do not sing this song.”
Hope is messy at this point, but there is survival. And survive is what Cargo#2331 does, against all the odds which are against him, against and despite himself. His only resolve, fragile and unpredictable, is to pray (this word is used with meaning). Maybe he will, inbetween his cryo-sleeps and horrific moments of lucidity, find A Better Place (track #15).
(DISCOURSE TIME: The perennial, silent surveillance of the A.I. over Cargo#2331, making itself known to him but never responding directly to his pleas for mercy or salvation is directly parallel to a deeper matrix of insidious antiblackness: simultaneously watched and recorded, but never answered, never helped. In fact, I like to think the decision of choosing sci-fi as the setting is a comment on how technological advancements have benefited institutionalised racism by improving, augmenting, and actualising it.)
The recurring gospel functions as a literality: a church, a religion, a foundation to place hope on. Cargo#2331 ideates choirs, invents a mythos (True Believer), he dreams of salvation that faith alone can provide. Solidarity is missing; he is alone, after all. So he taps into history and clings to a solace unbestowed. Catharsis is defined as the release of emotional tension through art. Cargo#2331, therewith, distracts himself from his lonesome fate by producing art. His rapping is swift, it’s personal, it’s west-coast. By tapping into this cultural vein does he preserve the gold mine within him. The music keeps him tethered to his history and his present, and it keeps him going. Black culture is what keeps him not only alive, but sane.
The A.I.’s actions ensured that he survives, but in doing so, it doomed him to a never-ending isolation, drifting aimlessly in space and never reconnecting with humanity. The metaphor here should be obvious: forceful separation and the prevention of equality. Now, Cargo #2331 is aware that this A.I. is his captor/saviour, and returns its electric feelings with a feeling of habitude. I’m part of you now. I’m part of your system now. Air ’Em Out, then, is a seemingly out-of-place track. It’s a hype-track about how he’s become master of the situation he’s stuck in. Simultaneously, it’s the zenith of his Stockholm Syndrome: with the A.I., he feels invincible. Then the A.I. abandons him. And he panics: Break The Glass. In his reminded loneliness, he turns to trying to break the glass of the windows* just to “hear you say my name.”
*: never do this on any spaceship
In Baby Don’t Sleep, he survives himself and drifts into another cryo-sleep. But this time he doesn’t dream of splendor, just the misery. An inchoate noisescape where the lyrics are demands he never give up. His future is still just as uncertain, but this is what the entire record has led up to: faith in himself, and hope for that future.
The corny organ chords mark the intro to the last song, A Better Place: saccharine in their timbre, a surreal shift in tone that sheds the bleakness of the previous 14 tracks. It sounds forced (Exactly!). Cargo#2331 noncommitantly and absent-mindedly, intoxicatedly, sings into a microphone “and I’m all alone, alone, alone, alone” as the A.I. returns to its role as narrator:
“Inside the mind of a man is a massacre.”
Splendor & Misery is about many things, but all of these are about the shackles of being born black in the West. These memories of oppression and the narrative of survival live on in all my black siblings — I might only be partly black, and I’m not even American, but clipping. made this record so much more than just America. It’s something universal. Not as a monolith, but as a history that is shared, a thread which connects us all. It’s about the cost of resistance, the price of survival, and, ultimately, the elation of true freedom.