In case you haven't heard, this is Madlib's year. Actually, come to think about it, you probably haven't.
Stones Throw Records' workaholic beat man has got more hustles going this year than Timbaland and the Neptunes combined. He released the Blue Note Records remix compilation, Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note, produced tracks for the debuts of Wildchild and Dudley Perkins and even remixed a track on the Jazzanova Remixed album. As if all that weren't enough, there's still a collaboration with the equally prolific (and enigmatic) MF Doom and a Stevie Wonder tribute -- performed under his jazz-collective alias Yesterdays New Quintet -- in the can.
And yet this underground omnipresence is still on the fringe. His well-known contemporaries are on stage front and center, and he's still working the crowd with a handful of CDs, handing them to anyone who catches his eye.
Champion Sound may change that. Out of all the off-kilter projects he's worked on this year, Champion Sound may be the most ghetto-friendly, and credit for that shouldn't go solely to him, as Madlib shares top billing with Detroit producer Jay Dee (or J Dilla, as he's referred to these days).
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Naturally, Sound wears its complexities proudly, like a teenage girl showing off her thong strap by having it peek out of her low-rider jeans. With both men fulfilling producer and performer duties, Madlib and Dilla each provide beats for the raps of the other. The result is more of a beat collage than a cohesive hip-hop album, on which Madlib and Dilla lay out their producing aesthetics. Two tracks stand out musically, one from each artist. For the eclectic, eccentric Madlib, it's "The Official," wherein he sets the track to a snazzy horn loop, thus caressing his inner jazzman. For the-ear-to-the-streets Dilla, it's the aptly titled "Raw Shit," which sports a sped-up, Dr. Dre flair and guest work from Talib Kweli.
Lyrically, Sound consists mostly of thug-rap fantasies in which each man competes for the title of most harried hustla in the hood. Dilla -- the harder MC of the two -- takes the most delight in this sport. On "Heavy," he riffs on every day being "another fuck, another hustle," while Madlib throws in a persistent echo of the title word that sounds more like a tribute to the Fat Boys' late Human Beat Box. For his part, "The Heist" finds Madlib relating a Reservoir Dogs-style botched robbery tale over Dilla's spare beats with his trusty stream-of-consciousness flow: "All because of cash/Now I'm mashing on the gas/Left a nigga with a gash/This is worse than the last."
Whether they're poking fun at meandering mixtapes or are simply chipping in with their own (my money's on the former), Sound illustrates what can happen when two distinctive hip-hop minds come together and take a liking to each other's style. While the whole world deservedly praises OutKast's Big Boi and Andre 3000 for coming up with a two-in-one album that underlines their greatest individual strengths, Madlib and J Dilla are doing the exact same thing with Champion Sound.
But is anyone out there paying attention?