Warp + Weft: Madvillain – ‘Madvillainy’


Madvillain :: Madvillainy

Stones Throw Records

Here’s something that might come as a shock to you, even if you’re a fan of Madvillain: Madvillainy has precisely zero choruses on it. This may be something you’ve suspected, and even the Wikipedia page on the record says it has “short songs, recondite lyrics, few choruses [emphasis mine] and a sound which [is] generally unfriendly to commercial radio.” It has far fewer than few. It has none. Zip. Zero. You could argue that the samples in “Strange Ways” or “Fancy Clown” constitute choruses, but you’d be wrong. Even “Rainbows,” which at least has a repeated section, doesn’t really have a chorus because it doesn’t really have a verse. It is, essentially, a hookless album, and the extent to which this makes it the brilliant record that it is cannot be underestimated.

A collaboration between retro-minded and multi-talented producer/MC Madlib and producer/MC MF DOOM (“Just remember: ALL CAPS when you spell the man’s name,” to quote DOOM himself, and I’ll abide by his wishes), Madvillainy is not exactly a sprawling record so much as an illimitable one, unbounded by traditional song structure. A basic tenet of the verse/chorus structure in pop music holds that the verse is responsible for advancing the story of the song, while the chorus pins the story to its universal significance. It’s not a rule, but think about “Eleanor Rigby,” where the individual stories of the verses are linked into the plight of “all the lonely people” in the chorus. Verse = specific, chorus = universal. Same goes for “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Your Love” by The Outfield, and countless other songs, both good and bad. In hip-hop, this contrast is often heightened, wherein the verses are places to display lyrical dexterity while the choruses are where you get people singing along. Choruses are often just chants or single lines repeated for maximum effect: “It’s getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes” or, to take a non-mainstream example, Tribe Called Quest’s exhortation to “Check the rhyme” or “Here we go, yo / Here we go, yo / So what, so what, so what’s the scenario?”

Without choruses, MF DOOM’s generally reflective and abstract lyrics become geometrically more involuted—they’re no longer streams of consciousness bounded by the shores of repeated choruses but have instead become just streams. It makes the record into one long piece, a disquisition with chapters on fidelity (“Fancy Clown”), the benefits of weed (“America’s Most Blunted”), the pitfalls of dating (“Operation Lifesaver aka Mint Test”), and everything in between. All these disparate threads might never make for a compelling listen, however, were it not for Madlib’s beats. Where DOOM’s beats and solo work often leans hard into electro and even ’80s funk (cf. Operation Doomsday), Madlib’s fuzzy soul-and-jazz backing turns out to be the perfect accompaniment for MF DOOM’s spiraling and sometimes even beatnik poetry.

Rather than take the record apart piece by piece, it’s perhaps better to start partway in, with “Bistro,” wherein MF DOOM introduces the cast of characters on the record in what seems like a throwaway track. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the debut grand opening of Madvillain Bed and Breakfast Bar and Grill Cafe Lounge on the water. Where we offer you the finest of the finer things, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Live on the beats, we have the one and only Madlib. And we also have King Geedorah on the mix. Yesterday’s New Quintet is here. Viktor Vaughn, Quasimoto, and I’m your host, the Supervillain.” That’s ten people, but just two actual human beings (King Geedorah, Viktor Vaughn, the Supervillain = MF DOOM. Quasimoto, Yesterday’s New Quintet = Madlib), and more than a bunch of funny names, it points the way towards a fascinating undercurrent of DOOM’s work, which is the power of naming.

MF DOOM, who was born Daniel Dumile, first came up under the name Zev Love X in the group KMD, and even appeared with a cameo verse in 3rd Bass’s “Gas Face.” Following a brief flirtation with mainstream acceptance, Dumile’s brother and bandmate Subroc was killed by a car and Dumile dropped out of hip-hop. In true superhero fashion, he resurfaced in 1998, performing under the name MF DOOM at New York’s Nuyorican Poets Cafe while wearing a mask, a reference to this alter-ego’s namesake, the Marvel Comics character Dr. Doom. In an extension to the reference, he’s released two albums under the name Viktor Vaughn (Dr. Doom’s real name is Victor von Doom), and Venomous Villain, released the same year as Madvillainy, even includes a track called “Doom on Vik” where Dumile (as DOOM) talks about his appreciation for Viktor Vaughn’s cultivation of his own style to differentiate him from DOOM. Funny that, since it’s the same guy, and a similar, but much more complex dynamic occurs in Madvillainy’s “Fancy Clown.”


Madlib (R) and MF DOOM

It’s a late cut on the album which at first just seems to be DOOM railing at an unfaithful girlfriend. “There’s been a place for you in my heart since we first met / A teenage love that didn’t know no hurt yet / My boys warned me you was poison like BBD first cassette / And still I put all my chips on the worst bet / Gave up the skirt, now I gotta hear it from the street / How dare you drag my name in the dirt and cheat / You coulda broken it off and dipped / and if you talked soft coulda still preserved the friendship / Now you apologize that’s what they all say / But you wasn’t sorry when you sucked him off in the hallway.” It’s straightforward enough, but just before the verse begins, you hear a phone ringing and then Dumile say, “It’s Viktor.” So this isn’t DOOM, it’s Viktor Vaughn, and then lyrics from the first verse make it apparent just who is the culprit that’s cuckolded him.

“Don’t make me pound his tin crown face in,” Viktor warns, although it seems he eventually accepts it. “But have it your way, raw no foreplay / That’s you if you want a dude who wear a mask all day.” It’sMF DOOM who’s stolen Viktor’s girl, and she actually seems better off for it since the second verse reveals Vaughn’s myriad indiscretions. What this allows Dumile to do is paint MF DOOM as a hero, but speak from the perspective of the villain here. It’s a track that opens up to show all its layers with repeated listening—one of the best examples of what can be done when hip-hop’s obsession with persona creation and alter-egos is fully explored.

As good as DOOM is at crafting multivalent narratives (see also “Ode to Road Rage” from Venomous Villain), he may be even better at jamming together images and associations into lyrics that don’t tell a story so much as set up a series of short arcs that would be difficult to link through traditional songwriting. To be sure, there are rock examples of such free-associative stone-skipping when it comes to lyrics—At the Drive-In and Mars Volta singer CedricBixler-Zavala and Burning Airlines’ J. Robbins come to mind—but it’s hard to imagine being able to carry off anything like “Great Day” within the confines of a typical pop melody.

“Looks like it’s going to be a great day today,” starts the song, “To get some fresh air like a stray on a straightaway / Hey you, got a light? / Nah, a Bud Light / Early in the morning, face crud from like amudfight .” It’s just a set of images to set up an idea of getting up in the morning and going right to drinking a beer. The remainder of what could be called the first chunk of the song seems disconnected, but he does a number of nifty things: “Lookie here, it’s just the way the cookie tear / Prepare to get hurt and mangled like Kurt Angle, rookie year / The rocket scientist, with the pocketwinelist / Some even say he might need some puh-sychiatrist.” First of all, there’s “Lookie here,” which is a kind of willfully dorky colloquialism much in line with DOOM’s other favorites like “Egads” and “Groovy.”He tosses these kind of lost ’50s-isms in willy nilly, and it’s just so un -hip-hop that it’s perfect. Then, the time honored hip-hop tradition of setting up a rhyme by changing a well-known phrase: the cookie doesn’t crumble, it tears, so he cannamecheck Olympic-turned-pro-wrestler Kurt Angle. (In 1996, while training for the Olympics, Angle suffered a sever neck injury, fracturing two of his cervical vertebrae, pulling four muscles and herniating two discs.) The fractured syntax of that last line is another signature DOOM technique. The slightly stilted delivery seems clumsy and ill-conceived, but think for a minute what the line is. He’s reinforcing the notion that he’s not quite right in the head by the way he forces the line clumsily.

At other times, his flow comes packed so densely that the tumbling effect of the words defies any straight-line sense they might make. From “Figaro”: “It’s too hot to handle. You got blue sandals. / Who shot ya? Who got you new spots to vandal? / Do not stand still, both show skills / close, but no crills. Toast for po’ ills. / Post no bills. / Coast to coast Joe Shmoes flows ill, go chill. / Not supposed to overdose No Doz pills.” Much of that could be patently wrong. I can tell you crills means crack cocaine, but as for the rest, it’s more about the mouthfeel of the words, the sheer headlong tumble down the lines that makes it work. It’s not something that can be adequately conveyed in print; you need to hear it for yourself.


That’s you if you want a dude who wear a mask all day

When you do, the first thing that sticks with you is unlikely to be DOOM’s right-angled flow—it’ll be Madlib’s crinkly production. The record slips from cut-and-paste sample pastiches like the intro track, “The Illest Villains,” to the wobbly and wheezy accordion sample of the most immediately catchy track, appropriately titled “Accordion.” It’s just drums and that accordion, drifting in and out of focus as the drums clunk along a step apart, the bass drum so big it distorts just a bit. When a keyboard bass comes in, stabbing around the kick hits, the tune flexes and breathes. The looseness here is a leitmotif throughout the record and its dominant musical character. The slippery, weaving jazz guitar of “Raid” bobs up against the Meters-esque beat in skittish ways, and the instrumental “Sickfit,” with its booming kick and hollowly resonating snare, is one of many beat sketches that work as effective waypoints along the album’s path.

When the vocal tracks don’t have choruses, the line between interlude-type cuts and full songs is blurred. Madlib reacts fluidly to the demands of such an album, stretching instrumental bits and demarcating divisions in the vocal tracks with more musical transitions and subsections. The rough, lo-fi texture of the album is an ideal match for DOOM’s languorous lyrics, and the small sections that construct the story of Madvillain from spoken samples blend more seamlessly into the album’s fabric than if it were a more traditional album with songs and interludes.

While Madlib and DOOM have each produced great work on their own or in other collaborations (see the selected discography below), the syncretic power on display on Madvillainy shows why fans are salivating at the prospect of another Madvillain album. Another promised DOOM collabo, this one with Ghostface Killah (who, incidentally, often goes by the name Tony Starks—the alter-ego of superhero Ironman, which is yet another of Ghostface’s aliases) and reportedly entitled Swift & Changeable, holds forth its own promise based on the tracks DOOM has already worked on on Ghostface’s 2006 album Fishscale. Madlib is reportedly working on several new albums, one under the Yesterday’s New Quintet moniker and one as Beat Konducta. None of them may live up to the complete package presented by Madvillainy, but then again, that’s a lot to live up to.


MF DOOM :: Operation Doomsday :: Sub Verse :: 1999
MF DOOM :: MM…Food? :: Rhymesayers :: 2004
Viktor Vaughn :: Venomous Villain :: Insomniac Inc :: 2004
Dangerdoom :: The Mouse and the Mask :: Epitaph :: 2005

Quasimoto :: The Unseen :: Stones Throw :: 2000
Jaylib (Collaboration with J Dilla) :: Champion Sound :: Stones Throw :: 2004
Madlib :: The Beat Konducta, Vols. 1-2 :: Stones Throw :: 2006

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