In many ways, Madlib isn’t a complimentary producer when it comes to setting the foundation for rappers to do their work over his beats. Whether it’s MF Doom with their legendary Madvillain project or his recent run of soon-to-be classics with Freddie Gibbs, MCs who step to the table to work with him need to be exceptional in order to not be outshined by how endlessly creative his dives into the crates tend to be.
Otis Jackson Jr., otherwise known as Madlib, creates instrumentals that quickly muscle their way to the front of the listener’s brain. On his newest collection of instrumentals, Sound Ancestors, Madlib — in collaboration with Four Tet’s Kieren Hebden — reminds fans that the prolific producer doesn’t need a narrator to take you on a mind altering journey, the magic trick is in the beat breaks and samples.
As the opening swells of the album’s prelude “There is No Time” surround you, you may think the partnership with Four Tet steered Madlib into a colder soundscape than his usual warm jazz and soul sampling pedigree. But, that feeling quickly subsides as the hard hitting drum and bass of “The Call” slaps away any of the ethereal textures of what precluded it.
Madlib’s hypnotic beats never grow tiresome, likely because it’s rare to find his name credited on a song running over four minutes. Sound Ancestors is no exception; with 16 tracks, only two of them run over three and a half minutes and many hover around the two minute mark. Songs like “Riddim Chant,” “Chino” and the hypnotic banger “Loose Goose,” drop in quickly to blow your mind before Madlib moves onto the next wavelength.
As opposed to many of his peers, Madlib introduces listeners to unfamiliar rhythms that their body may reject at first, before blossoming into an earworm that seeks repeated listens to unpack the endless references in his production. Before you have time to understand why something is slightly off beat, you will find yourself nodding your head hard enough to grind your vertebrae down to dust.
One of the album’s central references is to Madlib’s one-time collaborator J Dilla, one of the most lauded producers to ever use an MPC, on the all-out soul sampled “Two For 2 – For Dilla.”
Madlib has always experimented with a mixture of both live instruments and samples on his records. If this is the kind of music that moves you, the atonal distorted synth line and snare drum sound on “The New Normal” will be one of the most exciting and instantly gratifying things you are bound to hear this year. You can easily envision the protagonist of some cyberpunk-anime film breaching a hole through some prison or compound to fight their way to freedom against an angry hoard of evil goons.
Rapper and music aficionado Talib Kweli linked Madlib’s exploratory nature to the interplanetary genius of Sun Ra in a 2018 interview. “The way that Sun Ra viewed music, I think Madlib has always been trying to obtain that,” he said. As the album closes out with the free jazz indebted “Duumbiyay” that lineage can easily be drawn. With Sound Ancestors, Madlib erases the gravity of our surroundings to obtain liftoff with another fantastic record in a long career full of them.
Essential Tracks: “Two for 2 – For Dilla”, “Loose Goose”, and “The New Normal”.
Prerequisites: Madvillain’s Madvillainy, Madvillain’s Shades of Blue, and Quasimoto’s The Unseen.