After spending the last couple of years collaborating with high profile hip hop artists Freddie Gibbs and Oh No, newcomers could be forgiven for not knowing that Madlib is a solo musician in his own right, not just someone who provides production for others. Sound Ancestors is his first lone outing in almost 5 years, though there has been some assistance with the arrangement from the legendary Four Tet.
It is striking hearing Madlib fill an entire sonic landscape on his own. It would be difficult to imagine something as full blown and hyperactive as the synth horns on ‘Loose Goose’ acting as the base for another artist to perform over. The track leaves no available creative space, instead showcasing Madlib’s brand of subtly unhinged songwriting. The way the horns compete with each other is pulled straight from jazz music but the fact they sound more like fuzzy toy saxophones gives the track a surreal quality. ‘Hopprock’ has a similar, almost overwhelming impact, which is impressive given how slow and steady it is. A run of the mill, mid-tempo strummed guitar line is made to sound powerful and emotive in Madlib’s hands.
On the title track he pours all of his energy into scatty, energetic hand percussion before kicking off an abstract, fragile jazz piece. Because of how off the cuff and improvisational it sounds it is difficult to know where his work and the sample starts and ends. Regardless, the results are phenomenal. This vibe is pushed to a chaotic extreme on ‘One for Quartabê / Right Now’ which samples queer Brazilian jazz quartet Quartabê and has already made me a fan of them.
The samples of Terry Britten’s 1969 ‘Bargain Day’ weaved throughout ‘The Call’ make it sound like a transformed rock record with snappy instrumental hip hop beats confidently, ripping up and re-purposing the song. ‘Theme De Crabtree’ is one of several restrained, understated numbers on Sound Ancestors that flow from Madlib as if they are the most natural thing in the world. Whilst these songs are not generally the key selling points of the album (there are a couple of exceptions) they provide a strong counterpoint to the much crazier output found elsewhere. On ‘Road Of The Lonely Ones’ Madlib elevates one of these songs to single status through an expert pairing of sublime samples with beats that sound like the natural, intended home for the original melodies. This particularly atmospheric song is where Four Tet’s fingerprints are most visible.
‘The New Normal’ is a favourite of mine. Seemingly in defiance of the global pandemic, it provides a grinding, vibrating assault on your ears before periodically dialling down the aggression and giving into a softer, pillowy variation of the same sounds. It is an interesting way to morph a linear song into traditional verse/ chorus structure. On the other end of the spectrum ‘Latino Negro’ is a gentle, tappy dance number that is equal parts Latin folk (thanks to the emotional acoustic guitar) and jazz (thanks to the steady, bubbling drums).
The healthy variety across Sound Ancestors makes it difficult to pigeonhole Madlib as purely “instrumental hip hop”. This record further cements his status as one of the most creative and inspirational producers of today. Whilst there are less immediate areas of the tracklist, there is a good proportion of showstoppers and every track has its place in the overall effort. This is an LP that builds, getting better the longer it goes on. It makes me hope it is not another 5 years before Madlib delivers more solo output.
Sound Ancestors is out now on Invazion.