The Greatness of Madvillainy

Hip-hop has always been about boldness and inventiveness. From the moment the genre got popular at some place in the Bronx in the late 70s or a few years later when we had N.W.A. shouting "fuck the police", up until today, there has never been a place of comfort or stagnancy. The restlessness and anxiety of the propellers of the movement brought us, in my opinion, some of the most interesting albums of the past decades.

There is a clear difference, however, between modern hip-hop and classic hip-hop. Changes in rhyme schemes, storytelling, song structure, production, and flow, have come a long way since Rapper's Delight back in '79. We can attribute this to many different artists, of course. Nas and his Illmatic album defined what a good storytelling is. Rakim showed how to rhyme with different patterns, between sentences, with multiple words, and along others like Notorious B.I.G broke every bar structure to create amazing flows. Dr. Dre is the first true rap producer, and later on when A Tribe Called Quest started using jazz samples on their songs the game changed completely. Again. And the list goes on.

“Every generation after should kill all of their idols, kill all the people before them, don’t mimic them. Keep it moving.” — Andre 3000

Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Kanye West, Eminem, Kid Cudi, Tyler, Lil Wayne, Chance, Earl Sweatshirt, and more recently the trap guys like Travis Scott, Carti, etc., stand on the shoulders of giants. But we're not here to talk about them; at least not today. We're here to talk about my favorite hip-hop album, one of the most groundbreaking records in the genre. A collaboration between two super talented artists in the height of their careers. An album that feels neither modern nor classic, but everything in between. An isolated island that grabbed everything that was in the air in the underground scenes and made its own thing. MF DOOM, the rapper, and Madlib, the producer, in 2004, brought to us their magnum opus: Madvillainy.

“Live on the beats, we have the one and only Madlib
We also have King Geedorah on the mix
Yesterday’s New Quintet’s here, Viktor Vaughn, Quasimoto
And I’m your host, ‘The Supervillain’” — MF DOOM, Bistro

Madlib has many names. One of the OGs, feels like he’s been in the game forever. The music genius has dropped albums that span a plethora of genres; from jazz fusion under the name of Yesterday’s New Quintet (a jazz quintet that is actually Madlib playing all the instruments with different aliases) up to rapping as Quasimoto or colaborating with other artists as a producer, he’s done it all. His discography is quite extense and you would have to try hard to find a mediocre album.

It's impossible to listen to this record and not realize the style and inventiveness of Madlib's production. One of the best crate diggers (crate digging is when one goes to an record store to look for old records to sample) to ever grace hip-hop, you can easily get lost in his trademark maximalist production. You will find samples from Casablanca (“how do you do?”), Frank Zappa, Sun Ra, Street Fighter, Bill Evans, among many others, that along with the insane beats and loops make the producer’s presence just as powerful as the rapper.

Right off the bat in the album's introduction The Illest of Villains, Madlib already sets you to the almost cartoony feel of everything that comes after. The songs bleed into each other, like the end of Accordion is the beginning of Meat Grinder, in a way that is so smoothly and wonderfully done that sounds like something off of SMiLe by The Beach Boys. You could even compare it to The Dark Side of the Moon, but unlike in Pink Floyd's album, every track in Madvillainy sounds unique, and at the same time they all have the same mood and fit perfectly together.

Mood, by the way, is a word that defines his work very well. The songs are full, noisy, and they go hard. There is also a feel of a 70s variety show all over, and the craziest samples are used in the most creative ways. The instrumentals alone would already make this a great album, but then you have the perfect puzzle piece to turn this into a true masterpiece.

“Just remember ALL CAPS when you spell the man name” — MF DOOM, All Caps

When it comes to any sort of art, some auteurs are masters of the form. When James Joyce wrote Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake, he wasn't concerned about the story. When David Lynch wrote and directed Eraserhead, he didn't care much about what viewers would think of the plot. Same can be said for Godard and Breathless. They all wanted to see how far they could take their mediums — be it literature or cinema. The UK rapper MF DOOM is no different in regards to rapping.

“Got more soul than a sock with a hole” — MF DOOM, Rhinestone Cowboy

DOOM's rapping is much more about complex rhyme schemes and clever word play than about storytelling. He uses his writing truly like a villain would use their superpowers and you'll hear throughout this whole album amazing punchlines and memorable phrases. DOOM shows his prowess not only in his writing, but also in his flow. Rapping and rhyming off the beat, with his lazy style, reminds me of the bossa nova master João Gilberto and his syncopated singing that goes back and forth, almost independent to the rhythm, creating a unique jazzy style.

Last wish: I wish I had two more wishes
And I wish they fixed the door to the matrix, there’s mad glitches
Spit so many verses sometimes my jaw twitches
One thing this party could use is more… Booze — MF DOOM, Great Day

DOOM starts of giving you an idea, then goes to a totally different direction. In the example above, besides using the word booze instead of the obvious alternative, he afterwards uses it as a hook to rhyme and talk about shoes and about being authentic. You can get lost just reading his lyrics on Genius and reading the explanations. It’s honestly a hard challenge to not turn this article into a bunch of DOOM’s quotes.

His supervillain powers go beyond fun and clever lyricisim, however. DOOM has one of the most unique flows. Like a villain, he doesn't respect the rules: he doesn't adhere to a normal beat, he starts his lines whenever he wants to, he keeps and breaks rhymes when he wants to. And it never feels like he exhausts his options. All of that is done in such a smooth way, while still maintaining a cohesive story, that makes it seem like rapping is an easy matter.

The space race changed the world for good. Going to the moon wasn’t the mean to anything; it was the end itself. Improving what we had available in processes and technologies was the legacy brought by the dream of sending the first human being to the moon. We never went there again, but we did other things with the knowledge we gathered. And we will always remember the landing, the astronauts, their words, and the stories.

“It’s like the end to the means
Fucked type of message that sends to the fiends” — MF DOOM, Accordion

Comparing Madvillainy to the moon landing, even though it sounds like a bit of a stretch, makes sense. Its influence to the rap and underground hip-hop scene is unprecedented, yet at the same time there is nothing like it. It didn’t create a new subgenre, there’s no spiritual successor to it, it just is its own thing that a bunch of artists will cite as an influence and inspiration. The end itself.

Notice, though, that genius plus genius rarely makes genius. Yet in this case it definitely does. Madlib refered to the making of the album as “no big deal”, and that it “wasn’t really work”, just two bros chilling with shrooms, booze, and a lot of music. You can definitely feel these vibes in the record. Chill, yet powerful and dense. A larger-than-life work, yet sort of intimate; something that could only be done in a very special setting.

Or maybe it feels intimate because I’ve listened to it too many times. And I strongly recommend that you do the same.

A software engineer passionate about music and cinema.