On the list of history’s greatest, most important rap producers, you will probably never find one with less ambition than Madlib. When I talk about ambition, I don’t mean the drive to push one’s own ideas, to test and exceed the things that one has done in the past. Madlib has that. He’s made entire conceptual LPs of strange, broken rap instrumentals, and he’s made them work as albums. He’s left rap behind to focus on spaced-out jazz. He’s chased his muse down dozens of weird little aesthetic hallways, and he always comes away with something that’s, at the very least, listenable. Instead, I’m talking about “ambition” as a mark left on the genre, a drive to reshape rap’s entire sonic world in your own image. Most of the great rap producers — your Larry Smiths, your Rick Rubins, your Marley Marls and DJ Premiers and Q-Tips and Prince Pauls and Dr. Dres and DJ Quiks and Pete Rocks and Organized Noizes and Timbalands and Neptuneses and Mannie Freshes and Kanye Wests and Just Blazes and Noah “40” Shebibs and Zaytovens and DJ Mustards and Metro Boomins — have had that. Even J Dilla, probably Madlib’s closest peer, had at least a little bit of that. Madlib doesn’t. Madlib does not give a fuck.
Madlib has worked with plenty of important figures — Ghostface Killah, Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu — but these have been brief flirtations, not creative or commercial breakthroughs. He got his start producing mid-’90s West Coast partystarters Tha Alkaholiks, but while they were working toward knucklehead infamy, Madlib was creating his own soundworld with his Lootpack crew. For a while, his greatest fame came when he sped his voice up to a surreal squeak and rapped astral nonsense under the name Quasimoto. When he remixed “Threat” on Jay-Z’s The S. Carter Collection mixtape, I thought he might be moving toward some sort of aboveground visibility. Nope. To this day, Madlib’s undisputed masterpiece is the album where he teamed up with MF DOOM, one of the great distractible tangent-masters in rap history, to talk sputtering, tripped-out nonsense for 45 minutes. Madvillainy might be one of the young century’s most important rap albums, but it barely has a single hook on it. It’s not an album worried about inviting the listener in. Madlib just doesn’t care, you know?
Last year, Madlib and Freddie Gibbs released a really, really great collaborative album called Piñata. It was the best thing Madlib had done since Madvillainy and the best thing Gibbs had ever done. For a Madlib project, it seemed awfully bright and friendly. The beats, by and large, didn’t seem ready to fall to pieces at any moment, and the cast of collaborators included some real big names: Earl Sweatshirt, Raekwon, Scarface, Danny Brown. Still, you couldn’t call this a commercial rap album by just about any standard. It was just a really good one, impeccable and tangled rapping over impeccable and tangled production. I thought it was one of the best five or so rap albums that came out last year, and yet I didn’t write about it for Album Of The Week, since it had the misfortune to come out in the same week as YG’s My Krazy Life, one of the few rap albums I liked better. My Krazy Life was an ambitious album in just about every sense of the world. It was full of these bright and catchy radio anthems, but it tried (and, I’d say, succeeded) at giving cinematic sweep to its day-in-the-life-of-a-Compton-everyman concept. Piñata wasn’t trying to do any of that. It was just trying to impress, in its low-key way, and it succeeded wildly. Madlib probably could’ve ridden this to a place in the internet-rap zeitgeist, maybe placing some beats on albums from people like Kendrick Lamar or Action Bronson. He didn’t try. I saw Gibbs and Madlib perform together at the Pitchfork Music Festival this summer, and Madlib could’ve been just about any DJ. He played Gibbs songs that he didn’t produce. At one point, Gibbs turned around and asked Madlib if he’d seen the video for the song he happened to be performing right then. Madlib impassively nodded, but the question was interesting. Does Madlib even watch videos? Are they interesting to him? He never showed up in any of the videos for the songs on Piñata. He doesn’t seem to care if people know what his face looks like.
This week, Madlib releases the first collaborative album he’s put together since Piñata. This one is called Bad Neighbor, and it finds him teaming up with M.E.D. and Blu, two West Coast underground guys who have been around for a while without leaving much of an impression. M.E.D. has been part of the whole Stones Throw axis for more than a decade; he had one of the few guest verses on Madvillainy. He’s got a halting, clumsy, conversational flow that really works for Madlib’s production style, but he doesn’t really have enough personality to leave a deep impression. Blu is a little more interesting. He was once one of the great hopes of the true-school underground, appearing on the first XXL Freshman 10 issue (alongside guys like Wale and B.o.B.) after putting out a couple of promising collaborative albums in the last decade. But he signed with Warner Bros. and spent years languishing on the shelf, only returning to the indie-rap scene in the last couple of years. He’s a fluid rapper, technically sound but so casual that he sounds like he’s just talking whatever shit pops into his head. Along with those guys, Bad Neighbor has a ton of guests, most of them coming from the same general world. MF DOOM is on the album, as are longtime underground types like Frank Nitty and Phonte and AMG, and singers like Aloe Blacc and Mayer Hawthorne and recent Dr. Dre collaborator Anderson .Paak. Basically, everyone on the album comes from the same world — that hazed-out Stones Throw scene — and nobody seems especially eager to leave it, including the people like Aloe Blacc who already have left it.
But the actual people rapping aren’t really the point. They all sound good, but they sound good because Madlib beats tend to sound good with rappers on them. Unless the rappers in question are absolutely exceptional — Doom on Madvillainy, Gibbs on Piñata — they tend to fade away into the fabric of these beats, and that’s exactly what happens to every rapper on Bad Neighbor. Listening to the album, I tend not to care who might be rapping at any particular moment. That’s not a bad thing. Madlib has put out plenty of instrumental music, but his beats tend to sound best with people rapping on them, even if they aren’t rapping anything of consequence. The point isn’t the rapping. It’s that weird, floaty suspended-in-amber vibe that these beats give off, and the way rap cadences can anchor those beats. It’s the backwards drum sounds on “Swerving” or the off-kilter bleep oscillations on “Peroxide” or the massed ghost-voices and subtle disco basslines on “The Strip.” It feels reductive to call Madlib a stoner-rap producer; his beats are too splintered and adventurous for that tag to really stick. But a good Madlib beat makes your brain feel the way a decent weed high does. It leaves your brain whirling off in five directions at once, constantly stimulated but never quite able to settle on one thing long enough to form a coherent thought about it. In Madlib’s deep and ever-expanding catalog, it’s destined to become something of an afterthought, another pleasant intermission between Piñata and whatever his next monumental album ends up being. But this week, a trip into Madlib’s sonic universe is probably the best thing rap has to offer us.
1. Chance The Rapper – “Angels” (Feat. Saba)
What a roll this guy is on! Right now, every time Chance steps into a studio, he seems to walk away with something that just glows with energy and life and joy. On “Angels,” he’s still rapping with that excited pubescent crackle in his voice, but now he’s talking about wanting Chicago to be safe for his infant daughter, so now there are more stakes. Those horns and gospel harmonies feel like heaven punching you in the eye. And that Colbert performance is probably the best TV performance, in any genre, that I’ve seen in 2015; I don’t give a fuck if he was lip-syncing.
2. French Montana & Fetty Wap – “Whip It” (Feat. Zack)
Listen to the pure confidence in Fetty’s voice when he jumps on this song, the way he just attacks that melody. French is mostly just biting Future, doing that depressed muttering sing-rap thing, but he actually sounds pretty great doing it. It sure as hell sounds better than his usual Eeyore stumble-rap. Fetty is a good influence on him.
3. Junglepussy – “Dear Diary”
“Reflecting all up in the mirror, God made me so perfect!” Junglepussy has a rep as a fearlessly nasty rapper, but maybe she’s just fearless.
4. DJ Khaled – “I Ride” (Feat. Boosie Badazz, Jeezy, Rick Ross & Future)
Khaled’s new album is called I Changed A Lot, and he’s not lying with that title. For once, he’s put together a triumphantly badass Southern rap posse cut without screaming his catchphrases all over this. He really has changed! He’s a new man! Bonus points for Boosie calling himself “Boosie Mandela.”
5. Big K.R.I.T. – “Guillotine Flow” (Feat. Rapsody)
I’m not in love with the chintzy 9th Wonder beat, but that part where Rapsody says, “I’m the black stormtrooper all the white folks mad at / Don’t like female rappers? You only mad you can’t bag that”? Man, forget about it.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
the book came out and didn't flop pic.twitter.com/XvDYrq2KGV
— Shea Serrano (@SheaSerrano) October 20, 2015