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Thursday, November 23, 2017 
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Madvillain
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Madvillainy
Stones Throw
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The comic-strip style voiceover that opens this album, announcing Madvillain as the "two most powerful villains of the next decade" and interspersing similar snippets throughout, spoofs the self-aggrandizement the duo's hip-hop contemporaries indulge in. What follows is an exercise illustrating how far from the hip-hop "norm" producer Madlib and MC MF Doom are, but how much closer they remain to the genre's real core. The two prove themselves to be superheroes of hip-hop, villainous only in their relentless undermining of anything else currently considered relevant and real in rap. Though the voiceover claims they have "no code of ethics," their hip-hop ethics couldn't be tighter — integrity seeps out of this album like smoke from a blunt.

But one thing is true: Madlib pays no mind to any musical code of ethics or guidelines, steadfastly remaining 180 degrees away from any previously beaten path. Who else but Madlib could rock an accordion sample in a hip-hop joint? The word "genius" has almost become a cliché, but Madlib — AKA Yesterdays New Quintet, AKA Quasimoto, AKA Lootpack producer, AKA half of Jaylib and now half of Madvillain — is nothing short of it. Prolific in his consistently superb output, Madlib brings the kind of creative heat to his production that may as well be from another dimension, channeled through his crate-diggin' sensibilities.

While the current producer-driven trend in hip-hop favors beatmakers who stamp their signature sound (also read: formula) on every track, Madlib eludes all such pigeonholes. The only consistent characteristic of his work continues to be a love of looting old obscure jazz and soul records for samples, and a dusty feel to his snares. Beyond that he is wildly quirky and idiosyncratic. But he never loses sight of his listener, and thus his beats always bang, avoiding the dense, deliberate obtuseness of some of his angst-ridden contemporaries, or the throwaway hooks of others. Madlib's soundscapes range from the bottom-heavy psychedelics of "Meat Grinder," the solid, satisfying clunk of "Figaro," to the funked up melodies of "America's Most Blunted," the soulful "Curls" and the wistful jazz influences of "Rainbows."

MF Doom is a fitting partner in villainy, equally eccentric without being so abstract that he severs his rhymes from the beats. Rather, Doom melds his rhymes around the beats perfectly, hanging his softly graveled voice over Madlib's rhythms with deliberate self-assurance. His delivery is consistently patterned to complement the production — sometimes following the rhythm of the melodic lines, at other times veering off beat for a bar to add emphasis. Although his flow is consistently robust without being overbearing, he does switch up his cadence to fit the mood of the track — subdued on "Accordion" and more rousing on the upbeat "Raid." He even ventures into Biz Markie-esque singing on "Rainbows," which manages to work amongst the track's acid-tripped jazz. His voice is kept low enough down in the mix so that it works in tandem alongside the plaintive horns.

Lyrically, Doom's thoughts are as fragmented as Madlib's influences, sometimes holding together in loose narrative, as in "Fancy Clown," but even there utilizing his own alter ego Viktor Vaughn to do so. At other times Doom bursts forth with encapsulated observations, such as on "Money Folder": "Can't understand it? Ban it" or such bizarre one-liners as "Mad man never…go [pop] like snot bubbles" from "All Caps."

The two form a true collaboration, with beats and rhymes closely interwoven thematically. Lord Quas' time-space musings on "Shadows of Tomorrow" exemplify the nonlinear fashion in which these cats approach everything, including album structure. They are comic-book heroes living in a hip-hop hyper-reality, and they jump from plotline to plotline like the fast edit of animation, barreling through 22 tracks in 45 minutes like superheroes through space.

Conceptually less contrived than Wu-Tang, although no less complete in their creation of an alternate reality, the Madvillain collaboration offers a playground for its participants' hyperactive, complex imaginations. As eccentric as they are, the album comes off as a natural result of the pairing, making them less self-consciously offbeat than other diligently obscure hip-hop artists.

Madvillain burst out of left field armed with hip-hop superpowers that mere mortals cannot comprehend. The listener's task of making sense of it all is one hip-hop fans rarely get to relish. It's equally rewarding to look for sense in the album's complex production and puzzling rhymes, or to read meaning into its larger conceptual picture. Either way, you're satisfyingly submerged, and head-shaking smirks across the hip-hop nation attest to Madvillain's mission accomplished.


by Lucy Beer




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