Virginia's Clipse dwells in the dark recesses of hip-hop's smoky and foreboding back alleys. Pusha-T and his younger brother Malice, both originally born in Brooklyn, weave intricate cartel fairy tales where starry-eyed women hold ulterior motives close to the chest and life in prison is tucked away in the freezer in the form of kilos. So why do Clipse's hungrily anticipated albums make the fans smile so wide?

It could be that the Neptunes' minimalist, bouncy beats — they reserve their best production for the brothers — provide for balance without which the tone of these stories would probably take the form of the drug life's hopeless dead end. It could be that the delivery of these harrowing narratives tends to be more tongue-in-cheek than gun-in-strap. Pusha revels in the lyrical twist, keeping listeners on their toes ("I'm the best since he died and he lied/The spirit of competition, one verse could start jihad"). Malice, meanwhile, never runs out of playful descriptions of his street trade product ("Mildew-ish/I heat it, it turns glue-ish/It cools to a tight wad, the Pyrex is Jewish").

Whatever is so endearing about professed drug dealers who sometimes rap, it has connected with audiences in a way they never could have imagined. Last year, Clipse released its four-years-in-the-making third album, Hell Hath No Fury, to some of the greatest acclaim a hip-hop album can hope to get., which collects reviews from publications around the country, determined they had received the highest ratings of any rap album and the fifth best of any release last year in any category. Just ahead of them? Bob Dylan.

"My mother called me and she was so excited about how NPR was talking about her sons," laughs Pusha-T about their inclusion on National Public Radio's Best of 2006 list, and they have a right to gloat a little. Despite having recorded what Pusha says is "by far" their best material to date in 2003, their label, Jive Records, would not support it. This scenario was shockingly similar to the one that found Clipse's debut (1997's Exclusive Audio Footage) permanently shelved by then-label Elektra, but rather than seeing this album suffer the same fate, the brothers sued Jive after they refused to release the album (or the group from its contract). After some compromise, the label finally released Hell with minimal support and it fell off the charts quickly.

The saga left a bad taste, as evidenced on the club hit "Mr. Me Too." Under a dark keyboard, Pusha laments, "These are the days of our lives and I'm sorry to the fans, but them crackers won't play fair at Jive."

Hitting the road has been therapeutic for the guys, who can now leave behind litigation and focus on their true love. "The fans have really fallen in love with the album, and for them to see it done live, performed live, they really appreciate it," says Pusha. "The shows we've been doing of late, they're just hard-core Clipse fans there. A thousand people in the building and they're just there to see you, no one else. We just feed off it."

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