REVIEW: Madlib – Sound Ancestors

Sound Ancestors has to be one of the most intriguing albums we are likely to hear this year. It’s a patchwork of Madlib’s musical creations spanning several years, masterfully sewn together, or ‘arranged’, by Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet. It has the classic sound and feel of another Entroducing or Donuts, steeped in the vinyl culture of the hip-hop DJ and producer, an often under appreciated figure in a genre dominated by rappers. The difference here being how it was constructed not just from samples but also from original Madlib compositions. This formidable partnership made of two already great artists is here to play the game against two other greats in DJ Shadow and J Dilla, at a whole new level. With Shadow past his peak and Dilla, who is paid homage to directly on the album in ‘Two for 2 – for Dilla’, no longer with us, this is the most exciting example of this kind of album from a hip-hop artist we have seen in years.

The title of Sound Ancestors suggests a homage to past musical influences. And to me this is exactly what it does. I don’t think we’ll ever know which of the album’s creators influence which part of the album, but aside from the obvious classic hip-hop sound (see ‘Theme De Crabtree’ for The Fugees) there is a British influence in there (Tricky/Massive Attack on ‘Dirtknock’ and Roni Size basslines at the end of ‘One For Quartabȇ / Right Now’ for instance) that I’m not sure would be there were it not for the hand of Four Tet. And these perhaps more distant ancestors do plenty of good for the album.

Sound Ancestors moves effortlessly between genres with everything from Spanish guitars to reggae vocals. When samples are used, they’re never on the nose and they serve to give even more depth to the album. Madlib does what J Dilla did on Donuts – there’s just enough of a familiar sample every now and then to make you sit up, but not give away the source without some serious digging through the crate of your musical memory. ‘Road of The Lonely Ones’ (one of my Best Of picks for January) has the feel of some soaring Jersey boy 1960s pop, while others are pure mid-90s East coast jams, arguably hip-hop’s heyday. So much of this album says summer to me – it has a real knack for transporting you away from where you are, to somewhere infinitely less boring. Let’s face it we all need that right now.

It isn’t perfect though. The answering machine in ‘Hopprock’, an otherwise outstanding track, is not an ancestor worth tracing in anyone’s family tree. I’m not interested in hearing it and it introduces a short section in the middle of the album where Messrs Lib and Tet lose their way a little. But this is my only small moan in what is close to 40 minutes of brilliance.

In a recent interview Madlib claimed to have albums upon albums’ worth of material, from jazz to industrial, ready to go. It sounds like he’s been prolific during lockdown. How many more masterpieces might we be hearing this year? Sound Ancestors wasn’t an album that was on my radar at all before I heard ‘Road of The Lonely Ones’. Anticipation for what’s next has just gone off the charts.

Words by James Spearing

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