Mumbling in the pocket

On the last day of last year, the death was announced of one of the most enigmatic and under-recorded figures in alternative hip-hop, which had occurred two months earlier. MF Doom reached his greatest commercial success, and most would say his creative peak, in collaboration with Madlib, with whom he released the album Madvillainy under the Madvillain rubric in 2004. Typically enough, I didn’t get around to listening to it, and then I heard the hype, which put me off altogether. I mean, I always intended to give it a few spins, and I did hear it at the time, but it’s only now that I’ve gotten around to listening to it properly. It was definitely worth the wait. For some reason, some happenstance alignment of their creative processes, both men found themselves in a place of expressive liberty, and happened to be turning out highly compatible streams of consciousness in their respective modes—rapping for MF Doom and beat-making for Madlib (although both men do or did both). They didn’t work on the tracks together, Madlib producing the majority of the album in a hotel room in Brazil, before handing it over to Doom for his contributions. Madlib’s production is heavily sample-based, using vinyl obscurities from all over the world, as well as a number of well-chosen spoken-word and TV samples. He assembles them into stoned, swaying mindscapes that provide the perfect foil and inspiration for MF Doom’s free-associative lyricism. Doom packs a forbidding density of references and rhymes into bars that he delivers as though he can just about be bothered to lift his head from the pillow for long enough to get them out. It’s that insouciance in his delivery that makes the whole album work so well, for me—it’s like a new kind of swagger. Plenty of rappers have told us how good they are, how ruthless, how skilled, and how whatever it is that they do, that it ain’t no thing. Doom doesn’t need to tell us. He just drops his flows onto Madlib’s beats like he was cracking an egg onto a griddle, every syllable mumbled indifferently, but as deep in the pocket as a Roy Haynes drum break. There’s a lot of humour on the record, but there’s also some deep thinking: Madlib’s alter-ego emcee Quasimoto has a guest spot on ‘Shadows of Tomorrow’ which tackles the deathly character of perfection, and weaves itself conceptually around some spoken word samples of Sun Ra, from his 1974 film Space is The Place. Sun Ra’s brand of Afro-futurism is not a bad place to consider this record from, albeit that it is deeply rooted in the hip-hop tradition. There’s a need to forge a specifically African-American form of discourse, taking the formality and lack of humour in intellectual speech as a specifically white characteristic, which informs Madvillain’s stoner poetry and laid-back beats as much as it does Sun Ra’s interplanetary spiritualism. With its lack of choruses, its short songs, its continual, picaresque staggering from one thing to the next, its authors dropping whatever they drop as though they’ve already forgotten what they just did, Madvillainy feels like a dream—like a hip-hop Alice in Wonderland. Since I don’t really smoke weed anymore, listening to this record is about as close as I’ve come to being stoned for quite some time. But for all that they seem to be drifting on a cloud of smoke, every bar of this album is densely and carefully crafted, every word aptly chosen, and every beat perfectly placed.

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