Atop of indie rap and looking down with a blank stare, Madlib is every bit the eccentric mastermind so many critics and Amazon bloggers are quick to declare him. Homeboy couldn’t possibly give a damn about acclaim anymore. I mean, how many 9-out-of-10’s or higher does it take for your face to go numb? He flips spine-cracking breaks ten minutes at a time, fucks with a very select few outside his camp, and listens to hip-hop with an increasingly disinterested ear. Having essentially assumed creative control over the rap/funk/jazz monster that is Stones Throw Records long ago, it’s far from shock that the brother does what he pleases, and what he pleases to do is even further from the norm.
But Madlib’s been “out there” since day one. Anyone familiar with his yellow, brick-wielding buddy Quasimoto knew this on first listen. It’s always good fun filling in those who don’t know: Madlib, repulsed by his own voice, sped up the frequency of his vocals to make them sound helium-inflated. Over the same production with (potentially) the same lyrics, Lord Quas is born. “The Unseen” is his foray into the rap world, one that in hindsight personifies the Stones Throw catalogue and Madlib’s successive work so perfectly it’s as if it were a prequel. It’s more bugged out than Episode I for sure.
Nothing Quas spits is all that far-out per se. Madlib is a better emcee than most give him credit for, but his mythical alter ego won’t send you Googling for his lyrics. Rather, it’s the very concept that a blunted pig-alien might be chillin’ out with ‘Lib in the studio, taking shit from the cops, or listening to Wayne Shorter stoned that incites intrigue. “The Unseen” lacks a specific direction; but therein lies its beauty; it’s gloriously spontaneous and shows Madlib doing precisely what he feels, which just happens to be a little, if not severely fucked.
And it does tend to get freaky. While the collage of yawns closing “Bluffin'” will leave some scratching their heads, “Come On Feet” might give new meaning to “strange.” To one of Madlib’s most gorgeous beats to date, Quas takes us on an alien journey, where the teller is just as unsure of the destination as the audience. The Bad Kid’s sampling continues to run the show, “Return of the Loop Digga” encapsulating a barrage of delicious cut-and-paste jazz while Madlib sifts through a shitty record store. “Welcome To Violence,” with its 50’s movie dialogue and quirky bass line, undoubtedly inspired the “Illest Villains” intro on “Madvillainy.”
Of course, “The Unseen” doesn’t breathe without its kinky, funky, perky, dampened, diluted, and often creepy beats. “Low Class Conspiracy” flips a Wes Montgomery riff into a vintage break, while “MHB’s” blossoms into a dusted, jazzy wonderland. Walking bass and bubbling keys help craft “Microphone Mathematics” into a first-class head-nodder, only further emphasized by first-class sampling courtesy of Plug One: “you try keepin’ it real, but you should try keepin’ it right!” The beats are never pressured to add character to the songs (Quas is there for that), but one way or the other they do, whether it be the mysterious swaying chimes of “Bad Character” or subtle beat lounge vibe of “Jazz Cats Pt. 1.” “Astro Black” swells with cosmic bass, and although the wind sample quality on “Axe Puzzles” is suspect, it’s still good enough for Shawn Carter to jack for his own.
As a spaced-out beat tape “The Unseen” is superb; as a keyhole into Madlib’s mind it’s priceless. It’s far from a blind stab at the unconventional; more like the product of a mad scientist with too many vinyls to keep track: “I remember I was stealin’ records from my aunt’s closet, back in the day I didn’t even know that I could make a profit off it.” Funny how things work like that.