A decade on, Madvillainy is still a masterpiece from hip-hop's illest duo

A decade on, Madvillainy is still a masterpiece from hip-hop's illest duo

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Underground hip-hop is no stranger to mad geniuses—from Kool Keith (the original mad villain) to Jay Electronica before his fall from grace to the cult of Earl Sweatshirt, the weirder side of rap history is littered with mystical hermits and failed messiahs. But few have captured the imagination of fans as successfully or for as long as MF Doom (now known simply as Doom) and Madlib, and nowhere as well as on their sole collaborative work under the moniker of Madvillain, Madvillainy. Hailed upon its 2004 release as one of the best rap albums of the year, if not the decade, Madvillainy’s critical reception still holds up 10 years later. Some albums are so highly anticipated that it’s almost impossible to avoid an opinion hangover as time sharpens their weak points, but Madvillainy remains exciting and fresh with every listen, the rare long-awaited collaboration that lived up to the hype.

The frenzy that awaited Madvillainy certainly had grounds, considering the careers that led to its production. Doom’s origin story is the stuff of legends: Daniel Dumile’s brief, early career as part of the group KMD (under the name Zev Love X) came to a tragic end when his brother and groupmate, Subroc, was killed in a car accident the same week KMD was dropped by Elektra Records. After a few years in the wilderness, Dumile emerged playing shows with a stocking over his head, a disguise that eventually morphed into the mask of Doom. His proper debut, 1999’s Operation: Doomsday, established an entire musical world, populated by monsters, scientists, dinosaurs, and supervillains, woven seamlessly out of a patchwork of samples ranging from The Beatles to Teena Marie to Scooby Doo. Madlib (born Otis Jackson Jr.) is the sort of mad musical scientist who could make a masterpiece like The Unseen with nothing but an 8-track, a massive record collection, the considerable spiritual assistance of Melvin Van Peebles, and $50 worth of shrooms.

By the time the pair started working together in 2002, each had made a classic album in Doomsday and The Unseen, but it still might’ve made sense to tamp down expectations—artists may have a proven history of excellent work, but that doesn’t guarantee the same alchemy will occur in a collaborative piece. When Madlib and Doom started on Madvillainy, though, the partnership energized two parties notorious for being difficult to work with. The initial sessions at Madlib’s home studio went so well, he was inspired to make some of the album’s best tracks (including “Strange Ways” and “Rhinestone Cowboy”) with nothing more than a record player, cassette deck, and an SP 303 in a hotel room in Brazil—where he also debuted the first music from the album by playing “America’s Most Blunted” at the Red Bull Music Academy.

It was unclear whether Madvillainy would even be finished after a demo from the Brazil sessions leaked, which discouraged Doom and Madlib from completing the album. It took most of 2003 for the pair to become interested in getting back to work, but after some last-minute vocal re-recording, Madvillainy was finally released March 23, 2004, to glowing reviews. And thank Sun Ra it saw the light of day—Madvillainy isn’t just as good as the sum of Doom and Madlib’s considerable talents, it’s better.

If Madvillainy has a defining characteristic, it’s buffet-style efficiency. Madlib and Doom are interested in throwing out ideas as fast as they have them, giving them as much attention as they need, and moving on to the next thing; no song passes the four-minute mark (many are under two) and no two songs are alike. There are no choruses—every song is just verse after densely packed verse. Take “Curls,” a 90-second verse that manages to pack in all the Doom standards of wordplay, weed, women, and money into its brief running time. “Curls” could have easily been expanded into a three-minute track, but Doom and Madlib were confident enough to let it punch hard as is, sounding like a tossed-off sketch while conveying both artists’ meticulous craftsmanship.

Eschewing hooks also means there’s nothing to take the focus away from the simple (yet not-so-simple) interplay of Doom’s flow and Madlib’s production. Even though the two barely interacted while actually working on the music, they’re in a sort of perfect creative mind-meld. And Doom doesn’t pass up the opportunity to comment on Madlib’s production, riffing on the sample that gives “Accordion” its name, calling out Madlib’s use of “an old jazz standard” on “Money Folder,” or perfecting the blend of cartoon theme music backing and supervillain mission statement that is “All Caps.”

And yet, all of Madlib and Doom’s creative restlessness produces a consistent, complete album. Madlib’s production ensures that every track flows seamlessly into the next, so that the ecstatic, sugar-high piano riff of “Raid” comes naturally after the lumbering, funky bass of “Bistro.” Beyond his ear for flipping samples (especially the one of Waldir Calmon’s “Airport Love Theme” that grounds “Curls”), there’s also live instrumentation from the Loop Digga supporting “Great Day.” Where Madlib’s demented use of samples is the main show on The Unseen, upstaging his high-pitched rapping as Quasimoto, the beats on Madvillainy are primarily support for Doom, give or take the instrumental tracks (“Supervillain Theme,” in particular).

And in Doom, Madlib finds something he’s been searching for ever since (and has only just found with Freddie Gibbs): a collaborator who’s as worthy on the mic as he is on the boards. Doom’s lyrics are as unrelenting as they’ve ever been, and probably ever will be, using the lack of hooks to call attention to his finesse with the English language. He still cuts a comic figure—it’d be hard not to with lyrics like, “Don’t mind me, I wrote this rhyme lightly / Over two or three Heines / And boy was they fine, G”. But Madvillainy has layers, and its quick, furious jabs of songs reward near-infinite listens—“Strange Ways” is as effective a handling of religious violence as you’re likely to find in a rap song that doesn’t break two minutes, and “Rainbows” paints a simultaneously funny and deeply moving picture of a burnout suffering from mental illness and drug addiction, revealed at the end of the song to be the villain Doom himself.

Though their partnership dominates the album, Doom and Madlib don’t completely disappear into the entity of Madvillain. Instead, each gets the opportunity to display and comment on their own eccentricities with help from a kindred spirit. The showcase for Madlib’s rapping alter ego Quasimoto (as well as Madlib’s rapping in his own voice), Sun Ra tribute “Shadows Of Tomorrow,” is still undeniably a Madvillain song in its forward momentum. And the same can be said of “Fancy Clown,” which is rapped by Doom in his Viktor Vaughn persona and describes the end of a toxic relationship in which a girl cheats on Vaughn with Doom himself. On the other hand, Madvillainy’s biggest weakness is the stretch of songs given over to friends of the two collaborators, in particular the supremely boring Wildchild spotlight “Hardcore Hustle.”

The considerable charms of Madvillainy are best expressed on album closer “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Based on a sample of South American singer Maria Bethania, the track also contains two of Doom’s greatest lyrical turns: “Got more soul than a sock with a hole” and the immortal “Overthrow like throwing Rover a biscuit / A lot of bitches think he overly chauvinistic.” Those lines encapsulate the many levels on which the album works—one is simply a great pun; the other is both hilarious and a deep dive into Doom himself. Considering the smatterings of sampled applause that Doom shuts down and the lyrical focus on the album’s origin story (“Wasn’t even tweaked and it leaked into cyberspace”), it’s fair to say that, like Madvillainy as a whole, “Rhinestone Cowboy” manages the meta-relation of being about itself by way of being about Doom.

Madlib is such a workaholic he remixed the entirety of the album in 2008 as the not-quite Madvillainy 2 amid rumors that he and Doom were working on a true sequel. While a few of those tracks are good (“Space Ho’s Coast To Coast”), the remix album is still a bit flat—the original beats are too closely bonded to Doom’s lyrics. In a recent interview, the producer said that he had to “go see” a now-perpetually slacking Doom about getting together to finish work on that long-awaited sequel. It’s probably for the best Madvillainy 2 never hit shelves, especially if one-half of Madvillain isn’t willing to put the work in to have it equal the original—if that’s even possible. Given the almost cosmically large odds against that same lightning striking twice, Madvillainy is better as an isolated work of perfection.

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