The Unseen Reissue

(Stones Throw; 2000/2005)

By Clayton Purdom | 30 October 2007

Some people are driven to create. Some people have a bona fide artistic impulse, a node somewhere that makes the act of creation as vital as sleep. Sometimes it comes out in weird ways: elaborate scribbles on notebook paper, intent beatboxing in the shower, meticulous snapshots, elaborate mixtapes. Like a five-sport athlete that can’t get off the JV squad, some never find the proper conduit for their impulse. They sheepishly fingerpick a guitar, they attempt the occasional short story, they dream of the movie they’ll never make. It’s only the most fortunate that find the best medium for their individual impulse. Among these fortunate few, an impossibly small segment has that intangible something that renders the impulse valid: talent.

And then, after all of these, is Madlib. Madlib is one of those artists whose fetishized reputation buttresses the music as much as it undermines it. It’s easy to picture Madlib in mid-repose on the couch in Peanut Butter Wolf’s basement, huffing enormous blunts and oozing music and getting so genuinely blasted day after day that he doesn’t really even say hi anymore, he’s just sorta “that guy on the couch” who happens to infinitesimally construct retro-futuristic hip hop in his seemingly unlimited spare time. This characterization can make listening to his music that much more fascinating; people love imagining J.K. Rowling inventing her immensely intricate story arcs as bedtime stories for her children, for example, and its interesting to imagine that the sonic tapestries that Madlib creates are the product of getting stoned and dozing off on the couch. It’s interesting to think of these people—the ones with talent—as doing the same shit we do everyday. It makes them more human, more reachable. Maybe my beatboxing in the shower isn’t that bad.

The problems with a characterization like this are many— in this particular context it can provide a stultifying lens through which to experience Madlib’s work (and, to be sure, if he really did just live in a basement and inhale bong hits all day, he’d probably become Sirius). Still, The Unseen—his first album under the Quasimoto moniker—plays so chiefly to the every-dude perception of him that it’s hard to refuse.

Released in mid-2000, The Unseen was a realization of Madlib’s post-Lootpack buzz, which he had utilized to slowly build hype for his “protégé,” the helium-voiced Quasimoto. At 24 songs in just over an hour, it has all the qualities that we now come to expect from a Madlib production: scattered brilliance, hazy continuity, suite-like structure, a constant rush of intertwining samples and breaks, rhymes that emerge lazily from the ether, and all of it coming together to create a pervasive mood both familiar and disorienting, like staring in the mirror, on mushrooms.

Roughly, this is a concept album about (ready for it?) invisible creatures that convince us to do bad things to ourselves and each other. The squeaky-voiced Quas is constantly inciting violence, bragging on “Put a Curse on You,” “I’m the iller fiend / Put your head up in the guillotine.” His imagery is unceasingly negative, opening “Microphone Mathematics” with the couplet, “It’s Lord Quas dropping shit like some horses / Irritate your mind state, have you split like divorces.” Madlib presents himself throughout the album as just an innocent motherfucker caught up with his block’s bad kid; if he had his way, he’d just listen to music and make beats. But he can’t, he’s got an upright-walking donkey in a pink-velour bodysuit on his back, and most of his rhymes seem to be attempts at damage control for anyone Quas may have offended. It’s notable that the most “collaborative” track between Madlib and Quas is “Jazz Cats Pt. 1,” a laundry list of important jazz artists—it’s almost as if the two emcees became friends through a mutual love of jazz.

Jazz, that is, and pot. It’s hard to separate The Unseen from its suggested chemical counterpart, and, to be honest, this is a Saturday afternoon smoke record if ever there was one. In this context—bumping quietly from a stereo with a Soul Calibur game on pause in the background, fighters poised and ready for the intervening smoke session to be over—the album obviously succeeds. But this only furthers the conflicted standards of quality that need to be applied to Madlib’s work here. I know people who use pot as an excuse for watching the second two Matrix movies; this is obviously uncalled-for, because I can prove on an abacus that those movies blow. Pot can obscure the quality barometer.

In one of the other hallmark tests of an album’s quality—the headphone test—the album doesn’t disappoint in the least; indeed, this could be The Unseen‘s finest manifestation. A curious change creeps over it in this light: an undercurrent of melancholy, bubbling beneath the surface when booming for all to hear, manifests itself more definitely on a closer listen. Make no mistake: The Unseen is a depressing, lonely record, all mournful sax wails, paranoid hallucinations, musical obsession, chemical dependency, regret, barely concealed contempt. So what if Madlib turns these sentiments into a cartoon? What lies beneath this album’s spacey goofiness is despondency, splayed open and manic. One wonders if all that heralded prolificacy is hiding something.

Of course, this is a music review, not psychoanalysis (back off, Newell), and Stones Throw’s recent reissue of The Unseen provides a chance to develop an even closer relationship with that music: a second disc of instrumentals that’s just as intriguing as the album proper, and perhaps a bit easier for less adventurous heads to digest. (Not everyone’s down with the helium voices, but beats this dusty are damn near universally appeasing.) Still, most fans will probably spin the instrumentals with mild surprise before returning to the superior first disc; the bizarro “tag-team” of Madlib and Lord Quas is an inimitable delight, and it can be frustrating to hear these beats without them, good as they are.

All of which is a testament to the depth of Madlib’s production, perhaps present in its finest form on this album. When someone writes a definitive history of underground hip hop, who knows where Madlib will be listed (if even in that sub-category at all), but The Unseen (and Stones Throw’s generous reissue) presents a compelling argument for giving the dude his own chapter, wherever it falls. Maybe I’m reading too much into the melancholy at the heart of this album, but to these ears it’s directly correlative with leftfield brilliance. Madlib was destined for loneliness. He could never fit in, even as an artist: his talent’s too hard to classify.