In Review: Madlib - Sound Ancestors

Yes, Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) has an important role to play, but Sound Ancestors is not a collaborative project in the traditional sense. It is very much Madlib’s work brought into focus by Hebden’s curation, reflecting Madlib’s talent across various styles, and as the album's title would suggest, the genres that have shaped him.
Posted: 30 January 2021 Words: James Kilpin

It’s hard to know where to start with Madlib. In the most literal sense, his sheer prolificacy over the course of a 25-year career means that if, for whatever reason, you wanted to reacquaint yourself with his entire back catalogue before diving into this latest LP, by even the most rudimentary of calculations you’d be faced with at least 80 projects to work your way through.

More generally, it’s also difficult to know where to start with trying to define the role that he has played over the past quarter of a century in music. ‘Hip-hop producer’ seems like as good a descriptor as any, but not only does that overlook his other contributions to the genre – as a rapper in Lootpack, as Quasimoto, or with J Dilla as Jaylib – it also does nothing to reflect his various journeys into jazz as Yesterday’s New Quintet and Sujinho, his broken-beat electronic stylings DJ Rels, his work on reggae/dub/ska compilation Blunted in the Bomb Shelter, or his musical adventures through eclectic obscurities on Beat Konducta in Africa and Beat Konducta in India (to name just a few).

Yet, despite this evident musical virility there’s also an argument to be made that Sound Ancestorsthis brand new 16-track project, is actually his first proper solo studio album as Madlib (having previously helmed primarily collaborative albums, remix projects, complications and mixtapes). Yes, Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) has a role to play here on arranging, editing and mastering duties, but as the British electronic music stalwart is keen to point out, this is not a collaborative project in the traditional sense, it is very much Madlib’s work brought into focus by Hebden’s curation. It’s perhaps telling that Madlib, a renowned crate-digger and collaborator who has described himself in the past as "DJ first, producer second, and MC last”, requires the input of another to bring into being a project that is entirely his own – Hebden working a disparate array of “hundreds of pieces of music” into the intriguing and (surprisingly) cohesive project that we have now been presented.

The result reflects the sheer diversity of influences and interests that has defined much of Madlib’s career to date; the title Sound Ancestors aptly represents the ways in which Madlib incorporates elements of Black musical tradition into his primarily hip-hop led production style. As such, improvisational jazz, reggae toasts, African percussion, Latin grooves, classic soul, chopped vocal samples and characteristically smooth hip-hop all come together to create a piece that not only reflects Madlib’s talent across various styles, but also the genres that have shaped him.

Credit should also go to Kieran Hebden for his contribution. While less obvious than the headlines of ‘Four Tet and Madlib to release collaborative album’ may have led some to expect, tracks are noticeably given room to breathe, their own space to form part of the broader journey as almost disparate sounding pieces of music flow from one to the next in a way that doesn’t feel jarring or distracting.

Some Madlib fans, and even new listeners, will likely be left a little unenthused – it’s easy to see how the more low-key, minimal approach could render the project little more than enjoyable but not overly captivating background music to some – while others may be put off by the admittedly quite abstract, experimental and sometimes darker elements that crop up. But for many listeners it will no doubt serve as a unique record in the Madlib canon that further demonstrates the versatility and eclecticism of an enduring musical force. For those that don’t like it so much, fear not. If there’s one thing we know about Madlib it’s that you won’t have to wait too long for another new project to get your teeth stuck into.

Sound Ancestors is out now via Madlib Invazion. To hear more from Madlib, click here.

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