Stepping Stone: Madvillain // Madvillainy

Anthony Fantano (aka The Needle Drop) released a video back in 2016 detailing, among other things, his insistence that there needn’t be a second Madvillain album. Central to his point was the idea of hype and fan perception/expectations—since its release in 2004, Madvillainy has had enormous critical success, and is considered among the best hip-hop has to offer not only in the naughties, but since hip-hop’s inception. Releasing the already-made sequel album, argues Fantano, would only become a disappointment for Madvillain fans everywhere—after all the praise garnered upon the debut, there’s no way that another album could live up to the hype.

I think it’s important keeping this hype in mind when we look at Madvillainy. RateYourMusic lists this album as the fourth best hip-hop album ever, with a 4.10 rating (averaged from 11,175 ratings at the time of this writing). It’s worth noting that the albums that rank above MadvillainyDJ Shadow’s Entroducing…, Nas’s Illimatic, and the top spot of Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)—were all made in the 1990s, when hip-hop had (arguably) matured artistically and cemented itself as a staple of modern music. (There’s a reason this time, concurrent to the late 80s, is still referred to as “The Golden Age of Hip-Hop.”) This album essentially cemented the careers of producer Madlib and rapper MF DOOM as well, shooting them into the upper echelons of underground hip-hop, and making them some of the people to work with in the genre. Essentially, we’re talking about an album that, by many, is considered flawless. So what is my beef with it?

Before:

For the longest time, I really didn’t like Madvillainy. I liked my fair share of hip-hop, but it usually came from random places throughout the genre, from something as fun as Beastie Boys to classic artists like Ghostface Killah and GZA to more alternative sensations such as Doomtree and Eyedea & Abilities to groups that blew the lid off what could be done with hip-hop like Death Grips. There wasn’t really a “set” style I was into, and that still hasn’t changed—my only real gold standard was finding music that I found interesting in some way; not a particularly tough or original feat.

When I stumbled upon Madvillainy a few years ago, I figured it was basically a match made in heaven—on paper, at least. We’re talking about a hip-hop album with free-associative lyrics and fucking amazing esoteric production, fronted by a rapper with a supervillain persona—seriously what isn’t there to like about that? Add to that the album’s supposedly odd structure—no hooks or choruses and relatively short run-times—and aforementioned critical acclaim, it just made sense that this was going to be a shoe-in for me. I could imagine being asked what my desert island discs were, and I could slap a copy of Madvillainy down to my fictional questioner and that would be the end of the conversation.

But listening to it…that was something else, and not in a good way. A lot of thoughts and feelings came out of listening to the opening skit and “Accordion,” but the most prevalent of them was overwhelming boredom. I had it all set in my mind that this was an album that stretched the fabric of hip-hop, that had production that was so out-of-this-world that you needed to thumb a ride from a passing UFO just to get back to Earth. Instead I was greeted with an admittedly funny skit about villains and a track with a lackluster accordion sample and one of the most uninspired flows I’d ever heard. And as I listened it just kept going, on and on and on…I’m not even sure I made it to the end the first time I put it on. There was just nothing on the album for me, and what was on there wasn’t much—it’s like someone had made a hip-hop album that was once solid, and then kept stripping elements off of it until the music’s spirit was finally exorcised and left the album. Madvillainy, in my opinion, had no meat on its bones.

After:

It was difficult to even force myself to listen to this thing again. I was ready to give it up again by the time “Bistro” came on (fuck, I don’t care about your made-up bistro, DOOM—why don’t you actually rap instead of doing these stupid sketches?), but I forced myself to go through it. And to repeat the album again. And again. And again. If I was going to write why I didn’t like Madvillainy, I sure wasn’t going to take any chances—I wanted concrete evidence that this wasn’t as good as people make it out to be, so when the hate inevitably came my way I had a fair argument besides “it’s just not my thing.”

However, something happened between the third and fourth listen. Hatred and/or boredom no longer serve as an accurate description of my feelings about Madvillainy, but neither does adoration. It’s somewhere in between, really, though I wouldn’t be lying in saying it leans just slightly into “like” territory. Here’s the thing: this isn’t a horrible album. It really isn’t. However, Madvillainy is a very different album from what people claim it to be. At the end of the day it’s a weird collection of songs, but a somewhat enjoyable weird collection.

Out of everything Madvillainy has to offer, Madlib’s production and the general tone of the album are what keeps me listening. While I’m still not a huge fan of “Accordion,” I can admit that it’s grown on me a little. However, some of the other production in other tracks—the jumpy instrumentation of “Raid,” the horn stabs and riffs near the end of “Rainbows,” the flute loop in “All Caps”—really hooked me good, and all in different ways. Sometimes it feels like some funky jazz rap, but other times it has the serious air of a noir film. There’s obvious thought and serious effort put into the production of Madvillainy, and no matter my overall thoughts on the album, that note on production cannot be denied.

The tone (read: the attitude) also is a nice change from the violent garbage that is stereotypically associated with hip-hop. (Note: I actually don’t mind typical rap lyrics, but sometimes you just need a break, right?) Aside from the supervillain themes stringing Madvillainy together (which are great—“the villanous pair of really nice boys who just happened to be on the wrong side of the law, three hundred and sixty degrees”—that always makes me laugh), there’s just this overall humor to the album that reels me in. Sometimes it’s in the form of stoner humor (“So remember: M-A-R-I-J-U…A-J-U-A-N-A” [sic]), but often times its in the ridiculousness of the lyrics “Hey you, don’t touch the mic like it [has] AIDS on it”). While the tone can become a little more serious, like in “Fancy Clown”, it still retains a sort of gallows humor about life—yes, life can be horrible, but it’s worse if you don’t laugh at it.

Still, though, the biggest flaw in Madvillainy has to be DOOM’s flow. Believe me—it’s a cool flow for a little bit, but when you listen to nearly fifty minutes of the same flow, over and over again, it gets stale. Part of what attracted me to a group like Wu-Tang as opposed to A Tribe Called Quest was the fact that it wasn’t the same old rapping every damn time—Ghostface and GZA and Raekwon take some serious musical risks with the way they rap, and it works for them—they’re basically verbal acrobats at times with the way they’re able to fit words to work with others. While part of that has to do with word choice and vocabulary, it’s also heavily dependent on how the MC decides to glue these words together. DOOM doesn’t do any of that special shit here—he has that same cool attack like he always does, track after track after track. In DOOM’s defense, though, he manages to get a lot out of that same flow—he brings out some big lexicographical guns that almost make me forget that he’s essentially doing it the same way every time. So, props to him, I guess.

In Conclusion:

Throughout the entire album one thing is certain: there’s some serious talent at work—you can tell that these two really bring meaning to the word “artists,” just from the sheer amount of effort they put into the making of it. DOOM could’ve done what every rapper on the radio today does and just rap stupid inane shit the entire time, but instead he spices things up with his wordplay. Madlib could’ve gone full boom-bap and just stuck to sampling soul records, but he goes beyond that and includes some really esoteric sounds and samples into the work. Although I consider all music to be art regardless of genre and/or popularity, Madvillainy is a perfect example of hip-hop being made on a serious and artistic level.

That being said, though, I can’t say that this is a favorite of mine. The hype about this album really ruined it for me, and I’m not sure if I can ever look past that. Madvillainy definitely has value, and I won’t lie and tell you I’ll never listen to it again, but I just don’t see this holding up to some of my personal favorite hip-hop albums, like Enter The Wu-Tang or By The Throat. If I want some good rap, I’ll probably spin one of those albums instead, and I can pretty much guarantee that I won’t be adding this to my CD collection. However, I will absolutely admit that this isn’t the boring shit-show I initially thought it was, and that it deserves its own special place in hip-hop (and music) history—but not as the flawless masterpiece many perceive it as.

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