Sometimes we all get in a rut, and the best way to get out of it is to go out of our way to experience new things. Things that are beyond our familiar and comfortable areas of expertise. As such, I decided to finally check out this whole "underground" rap/hip hop scene. As an awkward white boy, I've just never really gotten into rap or hip hop on any but the most surface levels. I like the Beastie Boys, if that helps, but I never got into all of the popular rap of my youth or the current scene. The production seems too obvious and samey sounding, while the subject matter is either stuff I can't possibly relate to or have trouble with.
So with that out of the way, Madvillainy has really hooked me. All of the things that usually keep me from liking rap are absent. The production and samples are brilliant and non-traditional, lacking the repetitive and boring "in da club" vibe that I can't stand. Among the somewhat expected jazz and funk samples are sources as obscure as Frank Zappa, Steve Reich, the Street Fighter II video game, and some kind of bizarre Sun Ra spoken word piece, as well as the comic book(?) commentary about villains and supervillains that ties everything together. As for the lyrics and rhymes, MF Doom (and the other rappers) may dip into the usual subjects of weed, women, and money (three things I currently lack), but they aren't the focus by any means. There's a complexity and density to the rhymes that are genuinely refreshing to these ears. 'Shadows Of Tomorrow' in particular has a tongue tying structure that consistently impresses.
However, the best thing about Madvillainy to me is its structure and focus. I've been listening to other underground classics like Dr. Octagon's Octagonecologyst and El-P's Fantastic Damage, and while I'm loving those, too, they always feel long and somewhat repetitive. Perhaps it's just the contrast with Madvillainy, but I don't think so. Something other critics have also noticed is the non-traditional structure of the songs on this album. It has 22 tracks and is only 46 minutes long, but more crucially, the songs are fairly short and have no true choruses. Think of all the beloved popular rap tracks from the past 15 or so years. We remember them more for their hooks/choruses than for the rhymes in between during the verses. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a bad thing, but it makes Madvillainy all the more unique and interesting because it avoids this way of doing things. For some reason when I imported the album into iTunes, it added 'Strange Ways' twice, and it immediately struck me as the weakest track on the album because it was the only song that seemed to repeat itself. Whoops, turns out it didn't, but I think this just demonstrates what I'm talking about. The rhymes and production/samples are what truly make Madvillainy a modern classic, but its non-traditional structure and linear song progressions are a large part of its appeal.
While I may still be new to rap/hip hop, Madvillainy is fast becoming one of my favorite albums of the decade. It may just be the "newness" of this genre of music to me, but I don't think so. I may not be experienced enough with the vocabulary and reference points that most rap fans will come to Madvillainy with, but judging from other reviews, even they find something great and unique in this album. If you're like me and simply assumed that this kind of music just wasn't for you, then you've been listening to the wrong stuff.