In talking with a partner in rhyme from my college years the other day, we commiserated with each other about our lack of interest in most of today’s hip-hop. Not just the de-emphasizing of lyrical bars and fun flows and all that technical stuff that made the 90s a decade-long cipher of dopeness, nah…all of it. The vines; the twitter “beefs” (remember Nas vs Jay-Z?); the Kardashians; the general preponderance of senseless swag that would have the late Guru (RIP) rushing to his notepad in order to drop lyrical guillotines on ever-present wack MCs. It’s a familiar conversation, one in which the phrase “these kids” gets increasingly thrown around in the pejorative gusts of our rants, but it doesn’t do much besides make the two of us look and feel like a pair of old-school curmudgeons suffering from indigestion.
Enter Madlib. As though the Stones Throw bat-signal had pierced an October night sky over Los Angeles, directly responding to true hip-hop fans’ sacred woe and tribulation, the crate-diggin maestro Madlib has once again mercifully come to provide us salvation with Bad Neighbor. And while we don’t find his trademark blunted vocals (or those of his helium-voiced altar-ego, Quasimoto), emcees Blu and MED can be found in top form throughout the album, peppering the Bad Kid’s hot dishes with clever verses that keep everything at just the right temperature. The food metaphor is especially apropos here, as the seasoned LA producer, for those of you who aren’t familiar with his adventurous corpus, is like an overfed gourmand of vinyl who, like Anthony Bourdain, will try anything just once.
Seriously–when it comes to sampling records, Madlib is like that friend who will try to eat Mexican, Thai and Jamaican on the same night, and then tell you what it was like the next morning. From Blue Note jazz to Bollywood to Brazil, the guy has lived up to his basement-cosmonaut reputation.
And fortunately, Madlib has brought along some familiar characters. MF DOOM, the masked villain himself, along with Phonte of Foreign Exchange fame, Dam-Funk, and Aloe Blacc are all along for the thumping, funk-induced ride. Lib seamlessly spans the spectrum of his weird ouevre, sometimes defaulting to a stripped-down, percussion-heavy sound (check “Serving”) reminiscent of the Jaylib project with J-Dilla–complete with obscure samples culled from records neither you or I have ever heard of–or other times lighting up the dancefloor with lovely soulscapes that clap and croon their way into your swarming neurons, most notably on “Finer Things” where Phonte quips “A marriage of the minds, no common law!”
I would be remiss to let it go unmentioned that Blu absolutely RIPS everything Lib throws at him on here. MED is nice, as always, but he feels more like an accomplice, an older head shepherding the kid’s coming out party. Which is fine, because their styles complement each other perfectly. MED’s conservatism helps you appreciate when Blu athletically plumbs the depths of a rhyme scheme. He even gives DOOM a run for his money on the peppy, Bernie Worrell-sampled “Knock Knock” :
Turn the keys then amnesia
Scent of reefer
A few beers missing from the freezer
Distract from the cheeks in her jeans, bruh
Told to have a seat or I can be one…
fleeing with the pockets on Keebler
To go beyond the personnel on this particular album for a second, Bad Neighbor is a signature Stones Throw Records product, and its release gives us some perspective on what this label has meant to the underground (and hip-hop in general) in this new millennium. Old-school without being fusty. Lyrical without being corny. Bouncy but never commercial. Traditional yet never out of touch. It’s a thin line they’ve been acrobatically walking since Madlib and Wildchild exploded onto the scene with their 1998 Lootpack classic, Soundpieces: Da Antidote. If you remember the irresistible single, “Whenimondamic”, it was a cut that made no concessions to the mainstream–just a couple b-boys in black hoodies momentarily reminding Ma$e, Puffy, and the denizens of Harlem World what the roots of this craft really are. Fast-forward to 2015 and ain’t a damn thing changed but the Beat Konducta’s equipment, which is conceivably what the Stones Throw founder Peanut Butter Wolf envisioned all along.
(One of my favorite stage names ever, firmly entrenched at the top. Like he rolled around in a sticky word salad until emerging as a four-legged organism covered in creamy Jif.)
If you happen to be one of those crazy, tormented souls who think the rap game has seen far better days, if you’re a fan of fresh pad thai noodles with egg, red pepper, and cashews and tired of eating that soggy Ramen crap, Bad Neighbor is for you. Madlib and Stones Throw continue to burnish their legacy with the help of familiar suspects and new faces, so if ya don’t know, now you knowww. For the capricious vine-crazed kiddies, to quote Quasimoto, Madlib has come to “drop soul inside your ear-hole!” Salute.