Madvillainy unlocked the promise of the rap album as a living document
Label: Stones Throw
Original release date: 23 March 2004
The seismic team-up between Oxnard producer Madlib and New York polymath MF Doom gave underground rap the kind of album that changed the course of the genre forever. Springboarding off the respective strengths of the former’s Blue Note Records reworks and the latter’s multi-monikered post-KMD efforts, the duo – aptly named Madvillain – got together and made something greater than the sum of its parts; an undisputed hip-hop classic for the new millennium.
Commercially successful and critically adored, Madvillainy merged esoteric interests with broader themes, both insider nods and approachable punchlines folded into the mix. An unlikely highlight, track Accordion evokes the titular instrument as a melodic device over which Doom delivered his comic book baddie bars. While previous record Operation: Doomsday had introduced MF Doom’s supervillain persona, it took Madlib’s wildly inventive production style on Madvillainy to make the character iconic, echoing the work of revered comic book writers Frank Miller and Alan Moore.
Twelve years after Madvillainy, Kanye West garnered attention for his approach towards updating a previously released album. That record was 2016’s The Life of Pablo. Spurred on by a combination of listener feedback and his own creative whims, a month later he made modifications to the then-exclusively digital product, defending his right to do so by declaring the project a “living breathing changing creative expression” via Twitter. Among the noticeable updates were adjustments to Famous and Wolves, and he would go on to make three more rounds of changes to the album, some more obvious than others. Music critics and fans hailed West’s The Life of Pablo updates as genius, having taken advantage of the new artistic opportunities presented by the streaming landscape. Yet eight years earlier, Madlib already preemptively outdid his future collaborator with a complete overhaul of the Madvillain album.
Madvillainy 2 arrived in 2008 billed as a remix project, but in reality it was more than that. The ever-prolific Madlib had taken it upon himself to graft Doom’s vocals onto completely new beats, building something standalone as a result. At the time, many took an immediate dislike to Madvillainy 2, due in no small part to the sustained adoration for the original. Appalled by the rejiggering of a work deemed “borderline perfect,” Pitchfork panned the sequel as an inferior work, chiding Madlib for excising the comic book cool of the first instalment. Aware of the purist devotion of Madvillainy’s fans, even their label Stones Throw anticipated the backlash, going so far as to use the word ‘sacrilege’ in its marketing materials for the release. They still made a limited box set version out of it, nonetheless.
With respect to West’s digital tweaks, few hip-hop artists have endeavoured to do anything as sweeping as what Madlib did on Madvillainy 2. One exception, and a testament to Madvillain’s legacy, is Ghostface Killah. In 2013, three years before The Life of Pablo, the Wu-Tang icon dropped a grisly mafioso concept album called Twelve Reasons to Die. With music composed by Adrian Younge and executive production from The RZA, the project was his most heralded in years.
Shortly thereafter, a second official version called The Brown Tape emerged online, swapping out Younge’s organic production for that of modern boom bap artist Apollo Brown. While not as widely heard, this evil twin of a record earned a cult following, an indication that perhaps breaking the mold and rebuilding, as Madlib did with Madvillainy and its successor, allows the work to be greater than a fixed moment in time. As a result, the door is now open to reimagine nearly any rap album as a living document, unlocking an exciting future for the genre and format in our digital future – and that’s all thanks to Madvillainy.