Friday, November 20, 2015

MED, Blu, & Madlib - Bad Neighbor Review

On paper Bad Neighbor should be splendid. Three well-traveled artists with similar styles collaborating with a hodgepodge of talent coming through the door. Through their deep catalog, Madlib, Blu, and MED have all seen their fair share of success and critical acclaim, but what’s came with that is a cumbersome collection of baggage containing a sprinkled assortment of subpar releases. From Blu’s often-noted mixing issues, so commonplace they’ve come to be known as his de facto art style, to Madlib’s inconsistent span of his Medicine Show beat tapes, these artists, including many of their features, step the line between masterful and monotony. These three, through no alternate labelling using merely their artist names, have collaborated before on two EP’s in 2013. The Burgundy and The Buzz both showcased their collective style without developing much for each, translating three tracks off those tapes to Bad Neighbor here. More so, with their constant connections between one another in the preceding decade, this release, and its predecessors, do nothing more to draw in new listeners, content with the friendly nature of their recordings, like three childhood friends given the keys to a studio. In other words, Bad Neighbor never reaches for the stars or stumbles across the line, it merely settles for a smooth, safe path down the middle.

Of these three the most critically-admired is Madlib, and for good reason. His brand of production reads like a advanced musicology class centered around refurbishing long forgotten works. He reaches in the annals of urban music with the knowledge only matched by Questlove, branching out from Jazz to Reggae, Dancehall, Disco, and Soul, using Hip-Hop as the modern stepping stone. His range only seems to be matched by emcees who can commandeer a mic, like MF DOOM and Freddie Gibbs, two rappers with distinct voices and engaging lyrics. And thus kickstarts Bad Neighbor’s biggest problem, the two sleeper agents rapping over it. Both Blu and MED thrive off their relaxing, laid-back flows, content with cruising along the beat without rising above it. In setting’s more subdued than this the two would fair swimmingly, here however they drown, succumbing to Madlib’s cacophony of sounds, samples, and drums. While I can’t see it being the case with the Beat Konducta at the helm, the LP seems a little unmastered, with the beats notably louder than the emcees at times. Songs like ‘Streets’ and ‘Belly Full’ are prime examples of this, with clear issues holding attention to the rappers during their verses. 

Speaking of rappers, if two weren’t enough Bad Neighbor is filled with more. To connoisseurs of Madlib’s far-reaching linkage, most features here aren’t surprising, which is more worrisome considering nearly all fall under the laid back approach Blu and MED take upon. The clear exception to this is DOOM, who shines on ‘Knock Knock,’ due in large part because of the disparity around him. Hodgy Beats makes an odd appearance here, largely disappointing, while the rest of the bunch, from Oh No to DâM-FunK, provide their typical style. Lyrically the album falls in line with Blu’s standardized content, with an assortment of street-wise slanging, story-driven contorts, and introspective thoughts on financial and relational predicaments. It makes for a slightly disjointed piece, abruptly moving from one topic to the next, but does a fine job at relaying that classic 2000’s West Coast tone. When Madlib isn’t sampling choruses the team utilize their assets strongly, bringing in Aloe Blacc, Anderson .Paak, and Jimetta Rose, who never fail to capitalize on the fluid pairing of them and Madlib’s aesthetic. ‘Drive In,’ with Blacc, is a clear standout thanks to everyone coming together to create something that doesn’t amaze but is unwaveringly good. And .Paak on ‘The Strip’ makes a rather unfounded song memorable with his presence and distinguished voice. 

As was expected to be the case the best part of Bad Neighbor are the beats. The production, as per usual, follows Madlib's acrobatics, with janky Jazz, vinyl-scratched Soul samples, and woozy synths covering the sonic palate. The cluttered opening ‘Greetings’ begins mid-breath, as lauding organs and dense drums join a hype man with sounds similar to Madlib’s former accomplice, J Dilla. And while the rest of the LP follows a similar route, it elaborates on it, emphasizing erratic drums with a punchy bass, like on clear standout ‘The Stroll.’ In it, Madlib brings out all his guns, sending synths through a grinder, mashing a sample into vocal mishmash, and eradicating any purity left. Once again, it engulfs the emcee’s, drowning them in a flurry of noise that their subjugated vocals can’t help but hide behind. Elsewhere, like on ‘The Buzz,’ Madlib attempts a more minimal approach, drawing largely from Soul. Not surprisingly he comes off as a confident Exile here, a pairing that bodes well for these two rappers. But as far as beats go, the best come when Madlib doesn’t refrain on sample manipulation, like on ‘Birds’ or ‘Burgundy Whip,’ where vocals get chopped to the bone to fit into a complacent beat. 

But for what Bad Neighbor offers its shortcoming’s are just too evident to ignore. There’s an inevitable chance for greatness here, with both Madlib and Blu having classic rapper-producer albums under their belt. The large discography of Madlib, the handful of underwhelming releases from Blu, and the prosaic feature rapper MED contributing in bulk Bad Neighbor can’t help but be run-of-the-mill. For every track where they come together there’s an antithesis holding it back, like ‘Finer Things’ or ‘Get Money,’ which stall purely off their stale formula. ‘Knock Knock’ with DOOM brightens things with originality, like Madlib finding his creativity when his old partner in crime arrives, but when variety is absent tracks like ‘Streets’ arise that are locked in cruise control. It’s a sign of the times that underground West Coast rap has finally reached a plateau. From the likes of Fashawn, to Dom Kennedy, to Blu and many more, the breadth of content in the well has run dry with the last streams of creativity pouring out the sides. Years ago it was fresh, stream-lined conscious rap set for the modern era, but now, with a stinginess on staying real and true, even the uniqueness of Madlib can’t resurrect Hip-Hop that never attempts to leave the confines of good enough. 

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