Madvillain: Madvillainy

Each genre of music has a period of greatness, a time when every unique aspect of the style's past, present, and future melds together in an almost magical way. In jazz, it happened between the late '50s and the late '60s, when Mingus and Monk and Miles and Coleman and Coltrane broke the rules faster than they could make them up. In rock, it was from '66 to about '73, when bands as diverse as The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Pink Floyd created previously unimagined sounds that would be emulated and regurgitated for the next four decades. Folk had the period between Joseph McCarthy and Lyndon Johnson, punk had the years between the formation and the dissolution of The Clash, and reggae had the creative explosion in the '70s that resulted in everything from dub to dancehall (and some dude named Bob Marley).

That's not to say that no great artists existed outside these periods of greatness. Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker certainly pre-dated the peak of jazz by several decades, and Jane's Addiction and Metallica arrived long after rock's brightest lights had either burned out or faded away.

Hip-hop reached its creative peak somewhere in the late '80s and early '90s. The music was sophisticated enough that the novelty had worn off, but young enough to freely embrace new ideas. It was a time when aggression, violence, dissent, revolution, love, lust, drugs, intelligence, stupidity, pride, hope, and humor all shared the stage in an uneasy but creative peace. Sampling was still fair game, and young producers and DJs were experimenting with making their own sounds in the studio rather than relying on what other people had made.

I don't love hip-hop enough to search for the rap equivalents to Jane's Addiction or Metallica, the artists who came long after the genre's peak and completely changed the music for the better. Sure, I'll occasionally hear some guys who blow me away, but mostly I hear the hip-hop equivalents to Boston and Smashing Pumpkins and White Stripes: artists who might have an original voice in isolation, but are lacking when compared to the greats within their genre.

Music: 2.5 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
In isolation, Madvillainy is a fairly unique and striking album. Madlib's production is interesting, and Doom's words (or MF DOOM's words, to be technically correct) flow well. In a year (2004) when mediocre records by Beastie Boys and Kanye West were receiving Grammy nominations and rotten records by TI, Nelly and Jay-Z were selling like hotcakes, it's no surprise that Madvillain was almost universally regarded as a breath of fresh air.

The problem is, Madvillainy is only fresh when compared to the worst the genre has to offer. If you hold it up to TI and Nelly, the record is absolutely brilliant. But it's pretty damned lame when you compare it to the creativity that burst forth from people like Gangstarr, De La Soul, NWA, Public Enemy, and countless others a few decades ago. Yeah, there's an accordion sample in "Accordion," but who cares? (A whole bunch of critics, apparently.) I hate to break it to y'all, but accordion has been around for a long time, even in hip-hop!

There are some good moments here, but they're cloaked in so much of the same old dope-smokin', chest-thumpin', money-grubbin', bitch-hatin' crap that you have to search for the true gems. And really, guys, can't you get past how awesome pot is? I mean, didn't everybody figure that out with Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg like, 15 years ago?

Packaging: 4 EPFL library cards out of a possible 5
The cover on the EPFL's version is different than (and not as strong as) the cover I see at Allmusic, but it's still decent. The overall design is simple, but it has a lot of personality. The lyrics are included, and they're easy to read without being dull to look at. The credits are straightforward, and don't get bogged down with a bunch of unnecessary nonsense. It's tough to balance simplicity with individuality, but designer Jeff Jank did an excellent job.

Listen if you like: the many incarnations of Madlib and/or MF DOOM. If you're one of those people who thinks N.E.R.D. was the most innovative production team this side of George Martin, you'll probably like the tasty grape flavor of the Madvillain Kool-Aid.

If it were food, it'd be: read the previous sentence, please.


Anonymous said...

your section on the music seems to be written from someone who is either in outer space, at a country music show, or stuck in MTV. haha .. sorry, don't mean to dis.

but for real, i totally disagree with "is only fresh when compared to the worst the genre has to offer." I, for one, did not listen to anything the beastie boys or kanye west put out that year. for real, i havent heard them. i have successfully ignored "the worst the genre has to offer" steadily for years now.

madvillainy to me was pure creativity. they did the opposite of everything that's expected of people making pop music. there was no chorus, no slick beats, the lyrics were obscure and intellectual (in a good way).

this album reminded me of the classics that got me deep into hip-hop in the first place, like 3 Feet High and Rising. A different kind of album, for sure, but just as creative.

taotechuck said...

Interesting points, Anon. I agree with you that Madvillain uses some similar ideas to Three Feet High, but they don't take those ideas to any new places. There's nothing on Madvillainy that makes me say, "Damn, De La Soul should've thought of that!" instead, I just think, "Oh, great, another idea lifted from De La."

That's why I like Blackalicious and The Coup so much: to me, they take classic ideas from people as opposite as BDP and NWA, and they cook it up in a totally unique way.

Yeah, Madvillain should be commended for seeing the inherent flaws in cheesy choruses and Puff Daddy-influenced samples. But greatness requires more than simply not repeating other people's bad decisions.