When you listen to Gene Elliott Thornton, Jr. talk about his life and career, the precision in his delivery forces the listener to absorb every single word, as though each is stated with purpose. As No Malice, he approaches rap with the same level of precision and clarity that earned him acclaim as one-half of the rap duo Clipse with younger brother Pusha-T.
While there are countless stories and rumors regarding No Malice’s decision to leave Clipse—and ultimately the rap spotlight—the truth reveals the complexity of aging in rap. “I’m still the same rapper but I just have different stories to tell now," No Malice tells me over the phone. "This journey I’m on is just another side I have to show."
Although No Malice released his second solo album, Let the Dead Bury the Dead, last year, his name often comes up in conversation whenever Pusha-T’s name is involved, usually in reference to the indomitable force and eventual cloud Clipse left on hip-hop throughout the 2000s. Lines such as “Disguise it as art so the feds back up” not only displayed the imagery the duo created but also became symbolic of what Clipse’s drug raps came to represent. A sibling rap duo from Virginia rapping about drug dealing over Neptunes beats was as fresh as it was unique when Lord Willin’ shook the earth back in 2002, released just six months before Get Rich or Die Tryin’.
Then, in 2009, it all ended.
Regret is a complicated word, but No Malice has found peace in his career (and life) decisions over the years. “There was a time I used to have powerful regrets, but I’ve come to accept that it’s my past mistakes that have made me who I am now," he tells me. "What’s different from me is that I chose to grow.”
Let the Dead Bury the Dead and much of No Malice’s work post-Clipse suggests he’s had his own confrontation and reckoning with his past. He doesn’t shy away from it, nor does he sweep it under the rug. As he raps on "Shame on Me": “It was all good just a week ago / Jigga in the deck, in the dash a key a coke / Divi at the table, raise a glass then proceed to toast / Pour some for the homies, ‘If they'd only lived to see it though.’"
The raps became too real for the Thornton brothers in 2009, when their manager, Anthony Gonzales, was jailed for 32 years on drug trafficking charges. Despite being honest about his past, Gonzales' conviction and sentencing signaled to No Malice he was closer to the drugs than even he was aware of and marked a clear distinction between reality and fantasy—a line Clipse would often blur. While Pusha-T has embraced the persona he created for himself, becoming as mystical as Tony Montana and perfecting his brand of luxury drug raps, No Malice represents the opposite and balance to the scales.
“I’m very proud of everything I got to experience with the Clipse and the art we put out," No Malice says. "I don’t deny it either. It was a real moment in my life, but the journey continues and I’m sharing my whole life.”
Clipse might no longer exist as a musical entity, but the same experiences continue to influence No Malice’s approach to rap. No longer the center of the story, he has taken the role of documentarian, particularly on Let the Dead Bury the Dead, and his decision to embrace his faith within his music emphasizes that desire to document life as he now sees it, well into his 40s. No Malice didn’t pull a Ma$e—in fact, it's quite the opposite since much of his current activity involves community-based work with at-risk youth, offenders in institutions as well as students in colleges.
“I’m speaking to these guys in prisons and on the outside. People think they have this by-any-means-necessary attitude and think they know everything on the street, but they have a lot of questions, just like I did,” No Malice says. “Whatever they did doesn’t define their future and I try to get them to see what things are inside them that they need to let go of.”
With his devout commitment to religion since Clipse came to an end, No Malice has been misguidedly depicted as a "Christian rapper." It's important to remember that the Christian faith runs deep throughout Black communities. Over the years, countless legendary rappers—2Pac, Bone Thugs, Nas—have utilized religious imagery in rap. So what makes No Malice different? “I think [Christian rap] is what makes sense to people and I’ve never said I wasn’t that because I didn’t want to come across disrespectful to that genre,” he says. “When someone’s faith is a big part of their art it can make people uncomfortable, but I’ve always had an honest platform, focusing on lyric-driven hip-hop.”
Perhaps it tells us a bigger picture of the voyeurism within hip-hop and, by extension, pop culture. As No Malice tells it, "the industry will always be the industry." Of course, that's something the 45-year-old had to come to accept, but he now understands that it’s not one based on merit. If it were, Let the Dead Bury the Dead would be far more prominent. No Malice is comfortable, though. He’s old enough to be considered an "old head" but he knows where pockets of his fans sit and those remain the people who were drawn to Clipse nearly 20 years ago. A generation of rap fans grew up on Clipse, the MSN kids who witnessed MySpace implode while Soulja Boy became the first internet rapper. “I wanna see my favorite rappers grow and tell me about their life in that moment, instead of living in the past," No Malice explains. "I don’t wanna see you stuck because that’s sad."
The majority of contemporary rap’s audience is still young, and as Clipse fans grew, No Malice did also. Let the Dead Bury the Dead is an interesting title for an album, one that reflects its artist's current situation. It was especially fitting considering he turned his back on the industry as much of the album’s content suggests; “My past life, whoo, loved it like a child of mine / Now devil I spit in yo' face like a battle rhyme,” he raps on "Lu.4:5." The perception of No Malice shouldn’t have changed following his decision to go independent, nor should his faith; it’s now another lens through which he sees his own life and experiences.
Hip-hop has infiltrated so many spaces and mediums, artists who were once prominent MCs are finding that their vocal abilities are still influential, just in different contexts. And over time, the entertainment element of hip-hop has taken precedence over much of the community-based grassroots work the culture inspired and continues to inspire today. No Malice doesn’t scorn hip-hop for that. As someone who’s found power in owning his mistakes, he’s aware of the peace and freedom that comes with being able to find space within rap and hip-hop that doesn’t come with all the frills.
The themes of personal redemption and freedom that No Malice explores are the kind you’d expect to hear from someone who has experienced the rough end of the industry and the environments it fosters. Like his brother, the artist formerly known as Malice has aged like a fine red, and the distilled punchiness in his delivery remains present and potent. Their careers have very much forked at this point, with Pusha-T gladly taking on the role of the irredeemable sinner while No Malice seeks redemption. The plot depicts two sides of the same coin—sinner and saint. In a sense, No Malice found an ending to the myth he had created, while, like many addicts and dealers, Pusha remains fixed in a similar position to the one he was over a decade ago.
As a veteran rapper, No Malice doesn’t believe he runs the risk of disappearing into the ether, nor should he—his fans have followed him up until now. “I just want people to know that it’s okay to grow, and there will be some discomfort,” he says.
Believing experience equates to wisdom is a fool's errand—some never learn from the past—but No Malice has shown in music and beyond he’s always going to be a work in progress. Sometimes submitting to that truth is wisdom enough, particularly, to quote his brother, “When you’ve seen it all and done it all.” No Malice understands that his younger brother has his own path to walk.
Clipse may no longer exist, but No Malice, after realizing his own youthful mistakes, has imagined a world where the Thornton brothers can exist and live a life without drugs: “When you reach this point, you realize rap can age just like a fine wine if you allow it to.”