Home Music Discography Discography: MF DOOM: Madvillainy

Discography: MF DOOM: Madvillainy

MF DOOM’s run from his late-‘90s return Operation: Doomsday through his string of early-Aughts classics showed an artist in absolute control of his skills, producing compelling beats and dizzyingly complex rhymes both solo and in collaboration with others. Operation: Doomsday, Take Me to Your Leader and Vaudeville Villain could each stand tall as the feather in the cap of most rappers’ careers, each a distinctive entry in a discography that showed just how far DOOM could stretch his chops. Yet all of those records would come to sit in the shadow of what Daniel Dumile made when he teamed up with producer Madlib. Madlib, who had gone from DJing hip-hop to jazz and back again as a master of smooth production and sampling who could make funk and soul almost ambient in its relaxing qualities, was clearly a kindred spirit for DOOM, and under the newly minted alias of Madvillain, issued an album that would come to stand tall over a creatively fecund period of hip-hop history.

The first thing that stands out about Madvillainy is its breezy nature. DOOM always had a laidback delivery, but he and Madlib fully lean in to the sense of tossing off the album’s tracks. With a massive 22 tracks barely filling a single vinyl’s allotment at 46 minutes, the LP runs defiantly counter to hip-hop’s emerging preferences for CD-era bloat and padding with short and sweet tunes. This is the Pink Flag of hip-hop, a record whose songs get in and get out at the exact moment that the artists feel they’ve made their point, whether it takes them four minutes or less than one. At times, the transitions are jarring, so that the wheezing “Accordion” dumps into the brassy ‘70s dunk of “Meat Grinder,” which in turn gives way to the shimmering post-Prince R&B of “Bistro.” Throughout, samples of movie dialogue and sound effects burst into the sonic frame as playful, prankish disruptions. DOOM, already a free-associative rapper, surrenders entirely to the feel of his words, tossing off tongue-twisters and internal rhymes that don’t make narrative sense but work as goofy, evocative word images. At times, you’d swear that DOOM and Madlib put this together over a long weekend.

The second thing that leaps out about the record is, of course, the stupefying complexity that informs that façade of tossed-off genius. Armed with only a sampler and a turntable, Madlib meticulously crafted the album’s soundscape, among the densest sample-based music since the pre-litigation glory days of the Dust Brothers and Bomb Squad, over a nearly two-year period. DOOM’s lyrics, absurdist as they are, reveal depths of wordplay and literary techniques that might have made James Joyce green with envy. As we near the album’s 20th anniversary, all superlatives have long since been exhausted on this record, yet no amount of repeated play or extensive analysis can blunt the sheer technical achievement that these two men pulled off.

Similarly, the LP never ceases to be one of the most fun, immediately arresting records of any genre produced in the 21st century. Stack Madvillainy next to the major albums of 2004 and it sticks out like a sore thumb, tonally; more extroverted than the burgeoning wave of indie bands but not as strident as the social punks and hip-hop heads, the album feels like a true party record in a year defined mostly by political anger and self-searching questions of identity. You don’t even get to the end of the verse in “Accordion” before DOOM’s line “That’s why he bring his own needles/ And get more cheese than Doritos, Cheetos or Fritos” sets the tone for a style that would feel right out of the ‘80s golden age if more classic MCs could touch DOOM on the mic.

For all the silliness of such rhymes, though, one could spend years poring through this album. Check out any track on Genius and you’ll see nearly every single line highlighted with annotations. The references can be astoundingly obscure for an early-aughts hip-hop record: “Raid” obliquely references the 1949 film Home of the Brave, about a Black soldier suffering PTSD from both combat and prejudice, in the line “The doctor told a patient ‘It’s all in your imagination, negro’” before segueing that into an anthemic declaration about his skills with “What do he know/ About the buttery flow, he need to cut the ego.” And even when DOOM fully surrenders to the humor of it all, as on the weed tribute “America’s Most Blunted,” he still manages to compress rhymes into diamond-dense bars such as “He twist Optimo, just the raw leaf part/ The list top go: bust before beef start/ At the Stop-n-Go Mart, actin’ like a spirit host done it.”

DOOM’s career-long emphasis on flow reaches its apotheosis here, and Madlib’s backing only calls further attention to the MC’s smooth delivery, arranging and manipulating samples to at times match the cadence of DOOM’s rapping, turning jazz trumpets woozy to laconically rise and fall with his pitch or letting the staccato snaps of percussion synchronize with his knotty internal rhymes. As much as the album can suddenly dart in strange sonic directions, there is always a logic that links point A to point B, and that logic mirrors DOOM and the guest MCs’ own progression through verses.

Upon its release, Madvillainy instantly became Stones Throw’s best-selling record, though in real terms that meant moving only 150,000 copies in the days when CD sales still regularly went platinum. However, the moderate commercial success was drastically outweighed by the universal hosannahs that greeted the album in both mainstream and niche publications alike. Yet despite its ubiquitous rapture from the music press, it became the ultimate kind of cult album, the one that seemingly everyone you knew had heard but which seemed to be exposed to everyone by that one cool, clued-in friend who always hipped you to the real shit. Even today, well after the LP has become canonized and cited as possibly the most influential New York hip-hop album since Enter the Wu-Tang or Illmatic, Madvillainy still feels like that strange curio waiting to be discovered in a poorly sorted record bin. DOOM always made it seem easy, but the perfection of this album came to be an albatross around his neck, with each release that came after held to the impossible standard that this set. That often gives the impression that DOOM was never quite as good afterward, which is belied by any serious study of the actual music. But one thing is undeniable: everything he had done to this point led to Madvillainy, and it remains the most concise yet endlessly explorable statement of his mastery.

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