Releasing two albums in a year is one of those challenges that few emcees seem willing to try. 2Pac did it in 1996, but died in the process; Nas tried in 1999, but ended up with his two worst albums (he had better luck in 2002). Last summer, however, MF Doom outdid them both, with three albums all leaking online around the same time. Vaudeville Villain and Take Me To Your Leader, the two that were released, were both of considerable quality but had something missing: Doom’s beats on the former, his rhymes on much of the latter. After contributing both to his 1999 classic Operation Doomsday, the middling beats on Vaudeville Villain and the middling emcees on Take Me To Your Leader, failed to satisfy entirely.
The other leaked release though, a collection of demos from Doom’s sessions with west coast producer Madlib, was of a different kind: Doom handled almost all of the rhymes, ‘Lib did the beats. But rather than a straightforward collaboration, the Madvillain demos were a murky jumble of blunted half-songs and half-jams. The tracks meandered around for a few minutes in a clumsy haze, and Doom delivered his rhymes in a sleepy, sedated style that worked like a charm. However, these demos, recorded late 2002, never saw official release and, about a year after MP3 fans first got hold of them, Madvillain and Stones Throw released the final album, tightened up a fair bit from the initial leak.
The retail Madvillainy, a very different beast from the demo one, is great enough for most of that history to be fairly irrelevant. Rather than meandering tracks with a few rhymes and a few beats in each, the final CD is made up mostly of short songs, that mostly consist of a thick Madlib beat and Doom’s stuffed-up freewheeling rhymes careening over them. Although the songs are mostly the same, the way they’ve been tweaked demonstrates the difference of approach: the “old jazz standard” on the bootleg “Deuce Goose” is about five times as long as its counterpart on the retail “Money Folder.” Doom tears the beat apart so expertly that the shorter interlude just gets out the way, and let’s the track play.
22 tracks in 46 minutes is a pretty compact album, but neither Doom nor his producer wastes much time on here. The simple formula (Madlib + Doom = $$$) is consistent throughout the whole thing, and plenty of individual tracks are excellent in their own right: “Accordion,” “Meat Grinder,” “Raid,” “America’s Most Blunted,” “Curls,” “Money Folder,” “Figaro,” “All Caps;” just take your pick from the tracklisting. But rather than single tracks, the whole album stands, like few hip-hop albums nowadays, as entirely cohesive and listenable. The one-two punch of “Strange Ways” and “Fancy Clown,” with a perfect vocal sample placed for each one by Lib, is probably the album’s high point, but plenty of highlights have been scattered over the whole thing.
While a Doom-beats and Doom-rhymes follow-up to Operation Doomsday remains highly anticipated (MM Food, due sometime this year on Rhymesayers), Madvillainy is the best thing he’s released that solo debut, and more than enough to tide Doom fans over for the next few months. This review has focused more on Doom than Madlib, but it’s worth saying that he contributes at least as much to the success of the album. After spending years working with sub-par emcees and doing instrumental work, Madvillainy should be enough to get Madlib attention from anyone who was sleeping. Superb album.