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‘Madvillainy’ 15 years later

| Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Claire Kopischke | The Observer

In the early 2000s, hip-hop was overwhelmed with bling-flaunting artists like 50 Cent, Juvenile and Lil Wayne who rapped about chains, sex, drugs, money and guns. Much of the music of that era may as well have been copied and pasted from one artist to the next, for when 50 Cent released “In Da Club,” he was revered as a creative god amongst men. Bling-era rappers were masculine and braggadocious, but bubbling under the mainstream surface were acts like Kanye West and, more obscurely, MF Doom, who scratched similar itches in much more interesting ways.

Early 2000s hip-hop was so run-of-the-mill that Kanye’s pink polos and backpacks were considered weird. MF Doom, on the other hand, sported a mask, which was nothing new — Daft Punk famously wore robot helmets in order to separate art from the artist. Conversely, MF Doom used his costume to create an entirely new identity: the supervillain.

In 2004, MF Doom and Madlib joined forces as a rapper-producer duo under the name Madvillain to create the abstract hip-hop classic “Madvillainy.” The album begins with a vintage radio broadcast describing the two as “a villainous pair of nice boys who just happened to be on the wrong side of the law.” Whereas 50 Cent was tough because of gun-talk and gold chains, MF Doom created his villainous persona by telling tales of schizophrenic prostitutes, winning the award for best drug user and embarrassing his contemporaries.

Unlike other rappers, MF Doom did not have to brag about why he was the best rapper alive; he proved it with unmatchable rhymes, flow and word play. “Figaro” begins, “The rest is empty with no brain but the clever nerd / The best emcee with no chain you’ve ever heard,” Doom effortlessly rhymes six words within one breath as he makes fun of other rappers’ IQs and style. Later in the song, he mumbles, “Do not stand still, both show skills / Close but no krills, toast for po’ nils, post no bills / Coast to coast Joe Shmoe’s flows ill, go chill / Not supposed to overdose No-Doz pills.” Does this make sense? No, but Doom does prove that he can out-rap his competition in both English and gibberish. Mere braggadocio does not set Doom apart from his contemporaries, but he earns his cockiness through coded bars and overwhelming literary technique.

Of course, one cannot talk about Madvillain without mentioning MF Doom’s other half: Madlib. Like Doom, Madlib’s execution is not entirely experimental; similar to RZA and J Dilla, he repeatedly samples soul and jazz music on tracks like “Strange Ways,” “Fancy Clown” and “Rhinestone Cowboy.” While Madlib did not necessarily break new ground on “Madvillainy,” his stylistic breadth is something to behold. There are 22 tracks across the album and each one is radically different from the last — the beat on “Accordion” is an addicting loop of the titular instrument; the next song, “Meat Grinder,” samples a Frank Zappa bassline and whining synthesizers that sound like they were pulled from an episode of “SpongeBob Squarepants.” Next, “Bistro” sprinkles in dialogue from “Citizen Kane.” Madlib is the perfect match for MF Doom’s eccentricities. Each exhibit creativity so vast that it is hard to believe “Madvillainy” came from their minds alone.

The rap scene of 2019 is similar to 2004’s. Trap’s themes are comparable to bling-era hip-hop — money, drugs, sex, chains, violence, masculinity — but amidst that repetition is a myriad of creatives who were all influenced by “Madvillainy.” Earl Sweatshirt, JPEGMAFIA and even Thom Yorke would be different artists if not for MF Doom and Madlib’s masterpiece. Even if the album had influenced no one, Madvillain warrants celebration for crafting an album so imaginative, odd and unforgettable.

Artist: Madvillain (MF Doom and Madlib)

Album: “Madvillainy”

Label: Stones Throw Records

Favorite tracks: “Curls,” “Figaro,” “Strange Ways,” “Supervillain Theme,” “Rhinestone Cowboy”

If you like: Earl Sweatshirt, Tyler, the Creator, Danny Brown

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5

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