Are you really a hip-hop icon if you don’t have four different alter egos?

Famed producer and musician Madlib, sometimes known as Lord Quas, sometimes known as one half of the duo Madvillain and a slew of other personas, epitomizes this notion. The 47-year-old Oxnard, Calif., native has made a name for himself as a dynamic collaborator with talents like the late MF DOOM, Freddie Gibbs and J Dilla. Yet on his latest album, Sound Ancestors, Madlib sheds the pseudonyms and presents us with a rare solo project, full of meticulous sampling and genre-fusing.

The album is the brainchild of Madlib and British musician Four Tet, who helped arrange Sound Ancestors and announced its upcoming release on Instagram in mid-December. He shared that he had been working on music with Madlib for the last few years, stating the project was “not made into beats for vocalists to use but instead arranged into tracks that could all flow together in an album designed to be listened from start to finish.”

Four Tet is no stranger to toying with Madlib beats. In 2005, he remixed a handful of tracks off of Madvillainy, the seminal collaboration album from Madlib and MF DOOM in 2004. On Sound Ancestors, his arrangements feel completely natural.

Each track sounds wildly different from what precedes and succeeds it, jumping from dissonant kazoo and sporadic vocal sampling on “Loose Goose” to smoky flamenco instrumentation on “Latino Negro.” What Sound Ancestors lacks in surface-level cohesiveness it makes up for in its intimate renderings of Black artistry through the ages. It’s a collage of sounds that Madlib seems to have plucked from all corners of time and genre, seamlessly interacting with one another in a single combined narrative.

On the titular track, “Sound Ancestors,” an energetic, wooden rhythm dissolves into a slinky, jazz-infused flute and bass in the blink of an eye. On “Two for 2 – For Dilla,” Madlib pays homage to longtime friend and collaborator J Dilla by cutting and reconfiguring samples from the 1971 “Sly, Slick and Wicked” cover of the track “Love Gonna Pack Up (And Walk Out).” The track twists into a cosmic techno breakdown mid-song and makes good use of chopped-up, staccato vocal clips, à la Dilla himself. It’s a deeply personal tribute, memorializing an influential powerhouse of hip-hop with traces of his own influential style.

The track “One for Quartabê / Right Now” resembles Madlib’s past DOOM collaborations most closely, with its video-game-like keys and conversation soundbites. Yet even this track unpredictably flows into smooth, glittering guitar strums by its end, a testament to the overarching fluidity of Sound Ancestors.

On the closing track, “Duumbiyay,” Madlib flexes his ability to breathe new life into obscure samples. He overlays rhythmic chants from Six Boys in Trouble, a group of pre-teens who made homemade recordings in a Harlem housing project circa 1955, with an energetic jazz arrangement to punctuate their words. Only Madlib could unearth such a hazy snippet of the past and turn it into a lively piece for modern ears.

Sound Ancestors is never static, consistently inconsistent you might say, but that’s not a bad thing. The listener drifts from gospel to reggae to classic hip hop, a fascinating walk through the rich sonic heritage of Black music.

For some, Sound Ancestors may not feel as memorable as classics like Madvillainy or The Unseen. By nature, the project’s bare beats might not stick in your head as much as classic hip-hop ones with rap accompaniment. But in the absence of rapping, Madlib masters the art of storytelling using only sound. It’s not about the features or wordplay; Sound Ancestors merely catalogs Madlib’s far-reaching influences and transports the listener to each of these respective paradigms. 

The incalculable influence of Madlib on the hip-hop world is showcased on Sound Ancestors. In his celebration of the “sound ancestors” that shaped his own music, Madlib clearly solidifies himself similarly as an influential icon for generations to come.

Daily Arts writer Nora Lewis can be reached at noralew@umich.edu

 

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