In a house in Los Angeles clouded by the smoke and stench of marijuana lived two geniuses temporarily joining forces for a project. On the bottom floor lived a DJ named Madlib. On the top floor lived a rapper named MF DOOM (all caps when you spell the man’s name). Apart from the occasional puff-puff-pass, they hardly ever communicated verbally. While this doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of working environment that would produce a masterpiece, somehow it did. The duo called themselves Madvillain. They titled their masterpiece Madvillainy.
To fully comprehend the genius of Madvillainy one must understand the geniuses who are Madvillain. At the time of Madvillainy’s recording, Madlib had already established a reputation as one of hip-hop’s most highly acclaimed producers and DJs. Even though he never gained any mainstream popularity, he was already considered a living legend in the hip-hop underground. Madvillainy only furthered these superlatives. It served as a showcase for Madlib’s particular brand of making beats. When making a record, the typical hip-hop producer will go through his or her old record collection and pick songs to sample for a beat, which is the musical backdrop of a hip-hop song. This practice is referred to as “digging through the crates.” When it comes to crate digging, Madlib has no peers.
The musical world Madlib creates in Madvillainy offers a wide range of colors and emotions that challenge listeners’ ears without confusing them. Tracks like “Raid” and “Figaro” start with short and smooth jazz-inspired introductions and then quickly turn into a lively samba and a dark dirge, respectively. Gloomy songs like “Rainbows” are followed by laid back tracks like “Curls.” This sort of trickery keeps listeners guessing at every turn. Jazz and Brazilian samba were mentioned as some of the influences behind the beats of Madvillainy, but that’s only a snippet of Madlib’s musical palette. R&B, soul, funk, and progressive rock fused with more eclectic sounds such as Frank Zappa, Daedelus, and 70’s detective show soundtracks provide the tools for Madlib to build a musical version of Noah’s Ark. He brings every genre of music under the sun onto one record. Musicians who spent the entirety of their careers in obscurity have their music revived in Madvillainy. But as good as Madlib’s production is, a hip-hop record is only half complete without lyrics.
The other genius living in that pot-filled house has several names: King Geedorah, Viktor Vaughn, and Zev Love X. But most of the hip-hop world knows him as the villainous MF DOOM. Like Madlib, the mysterious MC never experienced success on the Billboard Top 40 charts. However, he developed a loyal and cult-like following in the hip-hop underground because of his unique style, his signature mask, and his multiple personas, the most famous being the DOOM, a supervillain inspired by Marvel’s Dr. Doom. So when fans heard that one of their favorite producers, Madlib, would be collaborating with hip-hop’s last true enigma, they were salivating. MF DOOM’s brand of hip-hop is a repudiation of almost every convention within the genre. Even the songs considered to be classics follow a common structure: 16 bars or rhymes, chorus, 16 more bars, chorus, and then repeat until there is a song around three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half minutes long. There is none of that in Madvillainy. There are very few catchy hooks or sing-songy choruses featured on the record. Each song features DOOM spitting uninterrupted verses without choruses, making nearly all the tracks on Madvillainy no more than two-and-a-half minutes of pure, unadulterated hip-hop. The title of a song will be mentioned only once at the beginning of a verse. MF DOOM’s style is an unapologetic and blatant middle finger to the hip-hop status quo.
Another hallmark of MF DOOM’s style is his unique lyricism. Though not a concern to some of today’s current crop of rappers, lyricism was once considered to be the universal method of measuring the skill of an MC. As DOOM himself says on Madvillainy’s penultimate track, “Great Day,” “It never really mattered too much to me/’Cause I was just too damn old to emcee/All that really matters is if your rhymes was ill/Girl, that’s all that really mattered to me, oh baby.” There are many who say that MF DOOM is the greatest rapper alive based solely on his lyricism, and they may have a point. DOOM’s bars are filled to the brim with all sorts of word play and metaphors. While Madlib’s beats bring listeners right to the water’s edge without getting them wet, DOOM’s rhymes push them into the deep end. One cannot enjoy DOOM’s songs as background music because they cannot be listened to passively. Every song on Madvillainy forces listeners to rewind so they can fully digest what the man is saying.
What makes Madvillainy truly great is the brilliant chemistry between MF DOOM and Madlib. During an interview with the Red Bull Music Academy in 2011, DOOM said that though he and Madlib did not speak with each other frequently while they were putting the record together in Los Angeles, they were still able to communicate. They had some sort of telepathy. He said Madlib would say something to him by sending him a beat. In turn, DOOM would respond by sending him his rhymes. Only the two of them will be able to fully comprehend how they were able to make such bizarre means of communication work, but thank God they did. The song “Strange Ways” best captures the synergy between the two artists. It is just two verses about two topics that DOOM finds contradictory and strange, and he breaks them down in his signature style. The first topic is the War on Drugs. DOOM provides commentary on how the War on Drugs is not only a waste of money, but also a waste of life that leads to the killing of both underprivileged youth and law enforcement officers. “He see as just another felony drug arrest/Any day could be the one he pick the wrong thug to test/Slug through the vest/Shot in the street/For pulling heat on a father whose babies gotta eat.” The second issue addressed is the conflicts in the Middle East, one being the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “They pray four times a day. They pray five/Who ways is strange when it’s time to survive/Some will go of they free will to die/Others take them with you when they blow sky high/What’s the difference? All you get is lost children/ While bosses sit it up behind the desk. It costs billions/To blast humans in half, into calves and arms/Only one side is allowed to have bombs.” He also criticizes what he see as the hypocrisy of the American policy regarding the Middles East. He sees the “spreading freedom” as nothing more than imperialism. “It’s like making a soldier drop his weapon/Shooting him, and then telling him to get the steppin’/Obviously, they came to portion up his fortune/Sound to me like that old robbery extortion.” As DOOM is rapping he is backed up by Madlib’s beat which samples Gentle Giant’s “Funny Ways.” Throughout the song, the line “my ways are strange” is repeated behind DOOM’s verses, highlighting the weirdness of each situation.
“Strange Ways” is not just a commentary on drug trade and American foreign policy. It’s a commentary on Madvillainy itself. The line, “my ways are strange” describes everything about it: the length and subject matter of each song, the record’s production, and the record’s lyricism. Hell, the very manner in which it was conceived is strange. But it is this strange marriage of Madlib’s musicianship and DOOM’s uniqueness that make Madvillainy the greatest hip-hop record of the last decade because it defied every convention in hip-hop and redefined what a great hip-hop record should sound like. In a time when hip-hop is teeming with clichés, repetitive formulas, and corporate greed, Madvillain take us back to a time when the only thing that was required was creativity and skill. They take us back to when all that really mattered was, in the words of DOOM, if your rhymes was ill.