(Stones Throw; 2004)

By Peter Hepburn | 26 September 2004

Aw, shit. After a year of delays, millions of files shared, rumors that made this out to be the second coming, and most likely several pounds of ‘dro, Stones Throw records, bastion of all things cool in this country, has let the album drop. Easily the most anticipated underground hip hop album in recent memory, Madvillainy brings together two giants in the underground; Madlib (a.k.a. Quasimoto, Yesterday’s New Quintet) takes the beats and the masked MF Doom (a.k.a Viktor Vaughn, King Geedorah, and formerly Zev Love X of the influential KMD) rocks the mic.

Both Madlib and Doom are coming off great years in 2003. Vik Vaughn’s Vaudville Villain and King Geedorah’s Take Me To Your Leader propelled Doom to the forefront of the underground (although this wasn’t much of a leap after 1999’s instant classic Operation Doomsday and his Special Herbs beat series). The equally prolific Madlib one-upped 2002’s Trojan Records remix project Blunted in the Bomb Shelter with the terrific Shades of Blue, expanding on the jazz work he did as Yesterday’s New Quintet. His Champion Sound album with Jay Dee brought him back to his hip-hop roots and showed him as a more focused and also wider-ranging producer than ever. Of course, Madvillainy is only the start for these two this year; Doom has the newest Special Herbs coming out simultaneously, Yesterday’s New Quintet instrumental tribute to Stevie Wonder is set to drop later this spring, and rumors of a follow-up to Quasimoto’s The Unseen abound.

It should be made clear immediately that Madvillainy is in many ways unlike anything either of the two have done before. First, that track listing is accurate; there are 22 tracks and the whole album clocks in at 46 minutes. Due to the short track lengths Doom and Madlib have evolved a style that eliminates choruses altogether in favor of Doom’s long-verse flow style, usually allowing only one verse per song. While this does leave a few of the songs feeling underdeveloped it tends to work remarkably well. Doom’s disintegrating flow is sick — he moves perfectly between slowly delivered lines and some surprisingly quick sequences. Madlib melds his style to the MC, laying down some absolutely ridiculous beats and showing that Doom sounds even better when the production quality is improved.

Also, Doom’s subject matter is far more limited on Madvillainy than on his 2003 albums. He generally, with exceptions, takes a back-to-the-streets attitude on the album, focusing largely on braggadocio, drugs, and alcohol, and shying away from much of the more sophisticated and engaging lyrical content that tends to define his work. Of course, Doom bragging is still about five times smarter than anyone else out there and his references are still far beyond the norm. Also, the parental advisory sticker on the album seems unnecessary; Doom doesn’t seem to curse at all on this album. This doesn’t come off as preachy or even intentional — it simply doesn’t come off at all. Doom’s flow is so impressive that the lack of swearing can be completely missed. He even makes fun of it on “Great Day,” letting loose with, “spit so many verses sometimes my jaw twitches/one thing this party could use is more…umm, booze.”

The album opens with a traditional MF Doom movie-dialogue villain bit which could have been pulled from basically any Doom album. Then you hit your first classic — “Accordion” sets the stage for the album perfectly. The beat is constructed from a looped sample of an accordion played over a bare, quiet 808. Doom drops some great lines (“I.C.E. cold/nice to be old/Y2G stee twice to three fold”), but the beat is what’ll grab your ear. The whole thing feels perfectly restrained and lets Doom spit while still letting Madlib demonstrate his genius.

“Meat Grinder” builds on a bass-heavy beat laced with hand bells and chimes with interspersed surf guitar notes. Doom lets it run fast here, showing just how long he can go with a single verse and how many one-liners can be thrown in. The imagery at the end of the track is especially interesting and evokes a whole new atmosphere when combined with the sinister beat: “the van screeches/the old man preaches ‘bout the gold sand beaches/the cold hand reaches for the old tan Ellesses/Jesus.”

“Bistro” is the proper intro track for Doom, Madlib, and all their alter-egos. “Raid” represents the most successful guest appearance on the album, courtesy of Medaphor, and also shows Madlib’s ability to bridge the gap between jazz and hip-hop. It should be pointed out that the other guests on the album (alter-egos don’t count as guests) tend to fall flat. Medaphor moves at about the same pace as Doom and fits the beat well, even if his delivery is a bit harsh coming after Doom.

And then you get your second classic. “America’s Most Blunted” very simply puts pretty much everything else to shame. Madlib throws the clips down perfectly and the beat is pure, sample-heavy genius as pinched guitar lines rise above the deep bass. Doom positively attacks the track, showing a new-found intensity as he spits out, “turn a Newport Light to a joint right before your eyes/tear a page out the Good Book/Hear it how you want it/America’s most blunted.” Quasimoto makes his first appearance in the next verse, which works as a terrific interchange with Doom. The Madlib instrumental “Sickfit” doesn’t leave much of an impression and Doom’s sung “Rainbows” lacks much of a point (though the interspersed samples work well).

“Curls” works as yet another standout track (starting to see a trend?). Lyrical content is a bit light, but the game-show-theme-song beat and organ/xylophone combo kills. “Money Folder” does alright, as the inclusion of a jazz breakdown in the middle distracts more than it entertains, but Doom throws in some priceless lines (“Egads, she got enough style to start three fads/true that, she bad, I wonder do she come with kneepads”). Madlib’s Sun Ra tribute “Shadows of Tomorrow” gets into an evil-funk groove and lets Quasimoto, and Madlib himself, throw out some philosophical lines on the nature of time. It’s a decent track, and it wouldn’t be at all unlikely that Madlib has a whole album of Sun Ra tribute tracks cut and sitting around the bomb shelter (probably using it as a coaster or something), but it feels slightly out of context on the album.

“Figaro” is another stand-out. Madlib lays down a deep bass beat matched with hand claps and tambourines while Doom pulls a less aggressive flow but manages to rhyme with an agility that surprises even on the 15th listen. He starts at normal speed but then speeds it up to “A shot of jack brought her back/it’s not a act stack/forgot about the cackalack/holla back/clack clack/blocka,” and slows back down only to speed back in later in the track, the whole thing flowing perfectly. Wildchild bombs on the subsequent “Hardcore Hustle,” entirely his own fault.

The damage is immediately undone with the killer combo of “Strange Ways” and “Fancy Clown.” On “Strange Ways” Madlib throws down a beat as strange as anything else on the album, riding a midrange bass over a country song as Doom spits about politics and religion. “Fancy Clown” witnesses the arrival of Viktor Vaughn on a track that lives up to the best of Vaudeville Villain. Madlib sets the beat over an R&B sample and clipped vocal sample while Vik raps to his girl about cheating on him with Doom (what does it say about the state of our world when alter-egos are threatening beatings on other personas of the same rapper?). Madlib gets his best instrumental in with the brooding, sinister “Supervillain Theme.”

The album closes off strong as well. Madlib composes a great cartoon-themed beat for “All Caps,” the video for which perfectly matches the song’s feel. “Great Day” has some of Doom’s slowest rapping but he’s still vicious over a fusion jazz beat. “Rhinestone Cowboy” finishes off the album with its longest track (yeah, it’s still under 4 minutes) and throws in a verse directly addressing the early leaking of the album (“It speaks well of the hyper bass/wasn’t even tweaked and it leaked into cyberspace/couldn’t wait for the snipes to place/at least a track list in bold print typeface”).

Time will tell if this album has any holding power whatsoever. I’ve been listening for a few weeks now and new aspects of beats and production continue to jump out with every listen. With expectations set so high there will certainly be those who will come away disappointed, and to be honest this isn’t an album that seems destined to be one of the classics of rap. When Madlib and Doom are on they come hard, and with Madvillainy they certainly hit more than they miss. In many ways it seems equivalent to a Guided by Voices album — some absolutely brilliant songs (“America’s Most Blunted,” “Accordion,” and “Figaro” to name just a few) interspersed with some kind of pointless-feeling filler and lesser tracks (yeah, I know, this problem has plagued rap music forever). Luckily Madvillainy seems to be more Bee Thousand than Do the Collapse; the absolute brilliance of the highs on this album manage to make up for the seeming lack of continuity and the occasional weak track. This is an absolute must-hear for 2004, and you’re certainly going to be seeing plenty more of it come list-making time this winter.