When dealing with an artist as prolific as Madlib, the average listener faces an odd question: What to buy? Because, truly, this man produces too much music for a reasonable person to purchase and enjoy over the course of a lifetime, assuming that person wants to have something resembling a life. In 2010 alone, he released nine albums or mixtapes as part of his Madlib Medicine Show series, and this is on top of the three albums he recorded as Yesterday’s New Quintet and its offshoots, the Guilty Simpson album he produced in its entirety, and the numerous tracks he produced for other MCs and singers. That’s just a stupid amount of music, enough to make any prospective fan throw up his or her hands in exasperation.
It’s a new year, and here’s a new album, maybe a fresh start for the overwhelmed: Madlib Medicine Show No. 11: Low Budget High Fi Music. The series has hopscotched through jazz, funk, dub, reggae, disco, and hip-hop; Stones Throw Records bills Low Budget High Fi Music as a hip-hop album, but it’s so loose thematically and musically that the layman will want to call it a mixtape despite the fact that they’re Lib’s beats and original music. “Sounds of the Studio (Prelude)” kicks it off with a healthy-sized Todd Rundgren sample before getting live, figuratively and literally, with the sound of a roaring crowd and an MC exclaiming the arrival of special guests.
On “Hold Up,” Madlib debuts the Professionals, a super-sibling combo with his little brother Oh No. The song is a beautiful morsel built around the sort of sample listeners expect from Lib: dusty soul that probably came from an unmarked, water-damaged sleeve he found in a record store basement in L.A. Lib also goes by the apt handle the Loop Digga; no one goes deeper. And even though the Internet makes it easy to find the source material dissect a producer’s manipulation of a sample, the magic of that looped and wailed “Hang on!” that is the song’s chorus remains undiminished.
Over the course of the record, Guilty Simpson, MED, Strong Arm Steady, and a few others round out the lineup of special guests. Even Talib Kweli makes an unannounced appearance on “Interliberation (Interlude).” At a scant 43 seconds, the song is over in a few blinks, but it ripples across the record, resonating because of how mediocre many of these other MCs are. In the right hands, a Madlib beat is the perfect complement, just weird and infectious enough for a standalone listen, but also able to accommodate a variety of flows. It’s just that most of these Stones Throw B-listers don’t flow so well, with mealy-mouthed deliveries of tired punchlines like “We hot, you not.”
So the Madlib fanatic would do best to pay attention to the loops, how this producer’s producer can take an exhausted sample, something like the cooed refrain from the Mary Jane Girls’s “All Night Long,” and freshen it by burying it low in the mix behind a slow-tempo rhythm section of rattling percussion, thick liquid bass, and what might be a few notes from a Fender Rhodes (the haze is so thick, it’s hard to discern). He does all that for maybe 40 seconds on “Mic Check (Smoke Break II)” and it’s one of the most replayable moments on a 28-track record with appearances from over 10 MCs. This album is the problem of Madlib’s output in microcosm: You have to pick through so many seeds and stems to get at the good bits.
Madlib is easily the most idiosyncratic producer hip-hop has ever seen, and when he’s paired with the right rapper, the results are peerless, like the MF DOOM collaboration Madvillainy. Through a litany of Sun Ra-esque pseudonyms and recurrent samples, he’s one of the only producers building a signature sound and mythology that, rather than coming off as lazy, feel more like the man’s personality bared, essential parts of his character that cannot help but invade his beats. That said, with two tracks leaked earlier this month from the next Madvillain album, listeners waiting for a true hip-hop album, something cohesive with beats that service a gifted MC, might not have to wait much longer.