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20 Years Later, "Madvillainy" is More Pivotal Than Ever

By Christian Hince | April 1, 2024

Few images in hip-hop are more iconic than the MF DOOM mask. Its sinister appearance represents a cult-like figure who unites hip-hop fans in circles both nerdy and informal. It’s more than a surface level symbol though, and in 2004 it embodied the best of what can happen when a rapper and producer work closely in tandem. “Madvillainy” hit its 20th anniversary late last month, and Madlib and MF DOOM’s efforts on the legendary record as Madvillain are still monumental.

A portrait commemorating the late DOOM.

Artist Credit: Marcello Laudato

“Madvillainy” was conceived during a creative renaissance for both artists involved. In 2003, DOOM, whose actual name was Daniel Dumile, released the excellent albums “Take Me To Your Leader” and “Vaudeville Villain” under the respective alternate personas of King Geedorah and Viktor Vaughn. Several months after “Madvillainy” he dropped “MM…FOOD,” arguably his best solo record. Two of Madlib’s most treasured releases came in 2003; “Shades of Blue,” a mix of jazz covers and hip-hop remixes, and “Champion Sound,” a bars and beats collaboration with J Dilla.

The end product of “Madvillainy” was the result of teamwork between two of hip-hop’s prime creatives from 2002 to 2004 – predominantly in Madlib’s locale of the greater Los Angeles area – and is a career and genre milestone for both men involved.

DOOM’s extravagant rhyme schemes were a calling card of his time in hip-hop and are entrancing on this album. There are the opening bars of “Money Folder;”

There’s also the endless parallel rhyming of “Figaro;”

Relying on individual examples to prove DOOM’s lyrical prowess could never do justice to the consistency he displays on “Madvillainy” however.

His complex rhyming never becomes overwhelming or boring thanks to his distinctive flow which slows down for breathers when needed like during a heavily parallel stretch on closer “Rhinestone Cowboy;”

Madvillain dashing in a beat-rhyme crime spree

We rock the house like rock 'n roll

His measured pace and slightly arhythmic adherence to Madlib’s varied instrumentals are calling cards which justify his attention to detail as a rapper. His variation in subject matter from bar-to-bar can make follow-up listens enlightening even years later.

The most obvious criticism of DOOM’s rapping is his lack of substance, however he blows this concern out of the water with countless pop culture references and his sense of humor. In “Great Day,” he tells rival rappers to “prepare to get hurt and mangled” like pro wrestler Kurt Angle during his rookie WWE season moments before rapping “what is jalapeños? Get it like a whooping when you holler at your seniors.” None of this is to say that DOOM is intellectually or emotionally shallow. “Strange Ways” is a powerful and timely critique of the Iraq War and systemic racism, and “Fancy Clown” is a convincingly angsty breakup song featuring his Viktor Vaughn persona.

All of this is done over some of the most creative sampling and beatmaking ever found on a hip-hop record courtesy of Madlib. From a family of jazz artists, his musical background as a student of jazz titans such as Sun Ra comes through on loops both obscure and full of technical whiz. His sample of the mysterious “Hula Rock” by Lew Howard & the All-Stars makes for a beat both menacing and groovy. His use of “Airport Love Theme” by Brazilian jazz composer Waldir Calmon has a quirky urgency as DOOM raps about the delinquent and criminal elements of his childhood. Madlib’s immaculate range which makes experimental sound cool elevates DOOM’s supervillain persona like never before.

The hazy, vintage sound of “Madvillainy” helps contribute to some of the most iconic moments for the mercurial MF DOOM character here. “Accordion” is the album’s first rap song, and Madlib’s gloomy accordion loop from Daedelus’ “Experience” works wonders in combination with some of DOOM’s best bars ever;

Living off borrowed time, the clock tick faster

“All Caps” is the thesis statement of “Madvillainy,” as Madlib chops up bits from the score of the 1960s series Ironside alongside some heavy boom-bap drums for something resembling an interesting and exciting superhero cartoon theme song while DOOM raps as the lyrical expert and chauvinist he describes this villainous character as. There’s also his critical mantra at the end of the first verse, “just remember, all caps when you spell the man name.”

Structure-wise, “Madvillainy” is both natural and visionary. It’s 22 tracks across 46 minutes and only three tracks hit the three-minute mark, something largely lending to DOOM’s avoidance of choruses and focus on detailed rhymes. His interesting storytelling on “Curls” and “Strange Ways” ends naturally when he stops rapping before the 90-second mark on each track. 

Organized placement of interludes spaces out the album’s heavy tracklist. “Bistro” features DOOM ad-libbing about a fictional restaurant run by Madvillain over a slick 80s R&B loop. “Sickfit” is a hypnotic boom-bap instrumental that almost feels put to shame without a rapper on it. “Supervillain Theme” shows Madlib sampling obscure Brazilian music again for a surprisingly epic psych-rock loop.

While DOOM’s rapping is breathtaking, it makes moments on the record without it pale by comparison. Guest verses from MED and Wildchild offer good energy and a couple appearances from Madlib’s high-pitched rapping persona Quasimoto keep the album feeling trippy like it should, but their lack of detail compared to DOOM’s verses is obvious. The song “Rainbows” where DOOM sings off-key over a jazzy Bollywood movie sample instead of rapping is arguably less interesting than anything else on the record, creating a minor lull in flow.

However, these are nitpicks about an ingenious and consistent hip-hop album that shows two of the genre’s best operating at an unbelievable level.

Most legendary rapper-producer duos such as Eric B & Rakim and Gang Starr have stuck together for multiple if not several albums, but Madvillain didn’t have the same fate. While a completed follow-up to “Madvillainy” has existed for years in shelved form even with the blessing of DOOM’s family for its release after his death in 2020, the overall catalog of his collaboration with Madlib is strikingly limited. The two’s commercial success hasn’t been dazzling either, with “Madvillainy” never charting higher than 73 on the Billboard 200.

Despite this, “Madvillainy” has had an unforgettable impact on hip-hop. Madlib’s jazzy and obscure production with DOOM’s monotone delivery and complex, referential rhyme-stringing have shaped the genre’s landscape, ranging from accessible names Denzel Curry and Odd Future, to the genre’s hyperactive branch including JPEGMAFIA and Danny Brown, to the nostalgic sounds of the Alchemist and Griselda, and to the subdued and strange intelligence of sLUms, billy woods. Even Playboi Carti name-dropped him on “Whole Lotta Red.”

“Madvillainy” is uncompromising and weird. DOOM’s mic quality is fuzzy, his rhymes are random, and he doesn’t rap on beat very closely. Madlib’s samples are bizarre and trippy in a way that ignores hip-hop conventions. The songs are short and not really catchy. Even so, “Madvillainy” is a wonderful work of art which is still treasured by many as the best rapper-producer album of all time.


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