Madlib is one of the most accomplished producers of this millennium. His credits range from a co-produced project with the legendary J. Dilla (2003’s Champion Sound) and a classic collab album with MF Doom (2004’s Madvillainy) to last year’s Piñata with Freddie Gibbs. He first linked up with the oft-maligned but technically gifted Blu on the title track to the rapper’s third album, 2011’s j e s u s, and though it wasn’t either artist’s sharpest work — it was under-mixed to boot — it did show signs of promise for future collaborations. The following year, Blu claimed his project UCLA was entirely produced by Madlib until the acclaimed beatsmith and his label, Stones Throw Records, publicly denied any involvement. The project was then promptly removed from Bandcamp. In 2013, the two artists reunited for real, this time with Stones Throw artist MED (pka Medaphoar), on a pair of EPs: The Buzz and The Burgundy.
The EPs were each highlighted by their featured cuts: “The Buzz”, a trotting tune with Mayer Hawthorne, and “Burgundy Whip”, which boasted a transporting ‘70s funk sample. Madlib is first and foremost a premier looper of attractive samples, cutting catchy throwbacks with precision so that they flow seamlessly without growing tiresome. His hearty chops make prime sound beds for MED’s wave-riding raps and Blu’s slippery wordplay, which fits carefully into the grooves. Sonically, they make a perfect trio: MED is a welcome complement to Blu’s unflinching style, few rappers are better equipped to deal with Madlib’s productions than these two, and Madlib gives both a larger platform that still scans as familiar territory. Given the obvious compatibility, it seemed making an album would be the next logical step.
Now, two years later, there’s Bad Neighbor, a full-length that takes the same ingredients and reproduces and repackages them to create that same chemistry for even better rap. In an interview with Rolling Stone, MED and Blu discussed what led to the delay, saying they wanted to live up to the lofty standard Madlib has set with his past releases. It’s easy to hear in the music. Both spit like they’re obligated to meet a benchmark and they trade bars in flurries. There’s a palpable connection between the two — in fact, they’ve known each other almost a decade now, and it spills over on wax, especially on “Get Money” and “Belly Full”. Each is a skilled technician in his own right, but it’s Blu that turns in several show-stealing performances.
The Los Angeles rapper is as good as he’s ever been on Bad Neighbor (On “Peroxide”: “Monica Bellucci with the Coogi/ My bubble goose, Grey Goose hootchie/ Slip my uzi in the movies like a roofie/ Excuse me”), and the most engaged he’s been since NoYork!, his strongest solo work to date. At his best, he’s a lyricist on par with any of his contemporaries. MED is a consistent, attention-keeping placeholder and welcome change of pace and tone, but Blu is the featured performer here. He flexes syllables alongside emerging West Coast star Anderson .Paak on “The Strip”. He gets the better of MED and MF Doom on “Knock Knock” over a warped Bernie Worrell sample. On the thumping, rhythm-heavy “Serving”, he takes the lead-off verse in a dead sprint. Madlib draws up the plays and MED repeatedly throws Blu alley-oops.
There are moments on Bad Neighbor that don’t gel: The sped up sample on “The Stroll” is grating, the beaming synths on “Streets” stick out from the pack for all the wrong reasons, and the bird sample flips on “Birds” are unappealing squawks. But for the most part, it’s a strong, cohesive offering from three distinct indie rap artists and West Coast representatives. The Aloe Blacc-featuring “Drive In” takes a pitched up vocal sample and spins a soulful jam, with MED spewing swag raps about cashmeres and Rolls Royces. On Bad Neighbor’s best cut, “Finer Things”, Blu shares the spotlight with Phonte, one of the most perennially underrated emcees of his era, and Pac Div member Likewise for a thematic song about material girls. The record is a posse cut without pretense and the showpiece of a stylistic partnership that feels long overdue.
Essential Tracks: “Serving”, “Finer Things”, and “Drive In”