The crown jewel in Stones Throw Records’ quest to emerge as the Def Jam of spleefy underground urban music, Madvillain’s no-longer-below-the-radar Madvillainy is unquestionably the hip-hop album of the year. As Nas’s recent album occasionally proves (at least during the first disc), concept can be as much an obstacle in the field of rap as it is a virtue, but beatsman Madlib and MC MF Doom thankfully didn’t get the message. Among the most prolific (and least artistically tethered…or least disciplined, if you wanna hate like that) performers in the field, the two had been on a remarkable rampage, collaborating with an entire network of West Coast players and racking up something like 87 albums between the two of them in the last five years or so, virtually none under the same nom de plume.
Sometime last year, Madvillainy leaked during its gestalt period, and though many of Doom’s lyrics still reflected a penetrating alertness and humorous bent, the hazy basement production was so dark and muddled (like a nightmare you only half remember the next morning) that it overpowered everything else. Another near miss, it would seem. Madvillainy v.1.0 detailed the misadventures of an ambivalent superhero, but the beats sounded like goth couture. So when Madvillainy was finally committed to silicon, bolstered with the type of cheap beats you can carry under your arm, it was a minor surprise to discover that the entire undertaking had snapped into a sharp focus you’d think impossible for an album so clearly the result of marathon marijuana sessions.
A nutty collage of old B-movie vocal samples (I peg one of them as being Green Dolphin Street), loops from the Ghosts of Black American Music Past, and nebulous, almost invisible 808 beatitude, suddenly the demented geniuses that were responsible for such diverse anomalies in the staid world of hip-hop as, in one corner, the thickness of Quasimoto’s formidable The Unseen and, in the other, Shades Of Blue (a jazz-purist-baiting anarchist romp through the archives of Blue Note Records), managed to forge a cohesive synthesis.
Many a philosopher have observed that politics exists as a continuum, and what most people consider opposites really meet up at the same point on the curve. Musically speaking, Madvillainy resides on that point. Someone else once wrote how difficult it is to score musical accompaniments in genres that long ago became their own parodies, specifically bass-popping, wah-wah guitar pedal blaxploitation R&B, and not come off as a pastiche. The only way to buck the clichés is to embrace them and shuffle the deck. And Madvillainy resides there, too.
The lo-fi array of effects and clips meticulously arranged by Madlib (a.k.a. Otis Jackson Jr.) come faster than they can be labeled and shelved. The 46-minute album has 22 tracks, only three of them run longer than three minutes, and many shed their skin and pick up new sampler adornments halfway through. Which is just about perfect for the central conceit: that of Doom, wearing a cast-chrome mask that’s halfway between The Punisher and the Phantom of the Paradise and his Feuilladian espionage hijinks. Nearly every song is like a back-alley costume change between midnight rooftop chases: “Meat Grinder” begins with a free-jazz fanfare that sounds like Jack Johnson quoting Mr. Moto, but eventually settles into a spaghetti western showdown in Honolulu (the quickest gunslinger in the Pacific raps: “Hopeless romancer with the dopest flow stanzaz/Yes no? Villain/Metal faced t’Destro guess so still incredible in escrow”); “Rainbow” cuts into its lounge lizard strut vibe with jagged, trumpet-blaring Batman stings; and “Strange Ways” busts a baroque costume ball with a pulsating, highly-compressed confrontational walking bassline.
Still, when Madlib chooses to hold down a notion by the fur on its neck, the results are just as galvanizing. The pensive droning of the title instrument in “Accordion” (which serves as the album’s rules setter, the moment that Doom psychologically centers himself before plunging into the abyss) grows in menace and sadness as the introductory track continues (“Slip like Freudian/Your first and last step/To playin’ yourself like an accordion”), until each loop doubles over on itself, like each time around another key on the side panel is being depressed. And the Legrandiose, piano-pounding, bebopping clip that fuels “Raid” (a collaboration with Medaphor and very possibly the album’s standout cut) is the type of ridiculously perfect symphony in miniature, an authentic headrush of compounding excitement and tension, that makes you want to raid your own collection of vinyl, dropping the needle randomly in a vain attempt to remove the context of the surrounding song. Musically innovative in a way that is nearly impossible to do justice to in print, Madvillainy is a chameleonic masterpiece that alone validates the artistry of sampler culture.