Saturday, November 7, 2015

album review: 'bad neighbor' by med, blu & madlib

You ever hear about projects that sound like easy wins in theory but don't end up sticking the landing quite as well as you'd like in reality, perhaps tripped up by their own ambition or artistic choices? Well, if we're looking for two rappers where that might well be the case, M.E.D. and Blu are two examples. Now I've talked about Blu in the past when I reviewed his pretty damn great record Good To Be Home last year, and there's been rumours he had put something together with Madlib as early as 2012, when Blu released the project UCLA for a short time before pulling it when Madlib denied any involvement. But putting that aside, Blu's brand of pseudo-conscious and layered bars would probably be a solid as hell fit against Madlib's more soulful and eccentric production. 

Believe it or not, I was more worried about M.E.D., who had actually worked with Madlib on previous albums as a fellow member of Stones Throw Records, but had run into diminishing returns when his bars didn't quite rise to the level of the excellent production he was getting from producers like Oh No, Just Blaze, and even Dilla. And it wasn't like his monotone was bad - I listen to LMNO and Evidence, that sort of flow and delivery can work - but his rhymes could just feel more awkward than they should against that production, and his content wasn't anything all that special to me.

So when I heard that M.E.D., Blu, and Madlib were teaming up for a collaborative record, with features from MF Doom, Anderson .Paak, Aloe Blacc, Hodgy Beats, Oh No, and even Mayer Hawthorne of all people, I was interested but a little concerned. I expected Blu to fit right at home against Madlib's production - providing, of course, he didn't get lazy, and brought the lyricism that worked so well on Good To Be Home - but had M.E.D. improved enough as an MC to stand out? And would it even matter if he had - most collaboration albums like this feel more like an excuse to sit back, chill, and trade bars, so with the understanding the content was probably going to be nothing groundbreaking, what did we get?

Well, remember when I said that there was a rumour that Blu had teamed up with Madlib? Some of that was based in the release of a few tracks and snippets that seemed to have Madlib's characteristic sound, just mixed incredibly poorly. Little did I know that was prophetic, because following in the way of the sloppy mastering of Good To Be Home, Bad Neighbor is most hurt by inconsistencies in production and mastering, to the point where I'm astounded Madlib was handling this at all! All of which could have been excused if the lyricism was on point or the melodies could shine through... and that doesn't really happen, resulting in a project for which I didn't even have high expectations underperforming.

So let's start with the biggest issues and work from there: the production. I get that there are left-field hip-hop albums where they're trying to be weird and bury their vocals a bit into the mix, but the vocal production issues run a lot deeper than that. Sure, you get tracks like the terrible layering on 'Streets' or 'Burgundy Whip' where you'll just miss what they're saying, but that's not helped by multi-tracking that's just sloppy, placed a shade off where it makes our rappers sound like they're spitting through a lisp, from the cluttered 'Serving' to 'Belly Full'. And what's more jarring is how inconsistent it is - Anderson .Paak and Hodgy Beats can cut through it with their more strident tones, but when you get Aloe Blacc for the hook on 'Drive In' and then pile chipmunk samples on top of his voice, you completely gut the soulfulness of the track! Or take Dam Funk on the talkbox on 'Peroxide' - the croaking layering just sounds awful, even for a song about slinging cocaine! Granted, that's provided you can make out what the vocal sample is saying at all - forget the inaudibility of the hook on 'Belly Full', I was trying to appreciate the off-kilter oscillating volume of the hook on 'The Stroll', but the muddiness of the presentation just gave me a splitting headache, which was definitely not improved by the ear-piercing squeal of the hook on 'Knock Knock'. But at least that track tried for some form of lo-fi R&B groove that reminded me a bit of Neon Indian - songs like 'Streets' with the muffled bass stutter and warping fragments feel like a hodgepodge without purpose, and on tracks like 'Get Money' and 'Burgundy Whip' we have bass so leaden and inert that even in trying to cultivate a west-coast vibe it feels clunky. Now there are a few melodic flourishes I didn't mind where the production cleared up - 'Get Money' had the organ and was sparse enough to give the rappers room, I liked the malfunctioning fax machine-esque interlude of 'Mad Neighbor', and the smooth guitar rollick of 'Finer Things' with Phonte's hook actually sounded pretty solid. But on the downside we have 'Birds', which fuses a bass-heavy wobble with what sounds like a chicken sound effect - Madlib, if your song reminds me of 'Aquaberry Dolphin' by Riff Raff, you've got a problem!

Now to give Blu and M.E.D. a bit of credit, it's not their fault you can't really hear them as well as you should - if Madlib messed up in the vocal layering, that's on him. What's a little less excusable is the rapping itself. Look, I get that these are not easy beats to rap over - I think Oh No only barely managed to pull it off on 'Streets', structuring a cohesive flow on that track looked damn near impossible. But that's still not an excuse for as many awkward technical flubs as there is. We'll get to content in a second, but for as much as Blu and M.E.D. try to assemble multi-syllabic flows with their usual free form style, there are more than a few cases of dropped or forced rhymes or bars that simply lack any satisfying conclusion or punchline. Now that can work for tracks like 'Knock Knock', where MF Doom comes into their house unannounced, rummages through their stuff, and drinks their beer - it's more free verse, it can kind of work - but there's no excuse for how clumsy so many of these bars can feel, if only because I've heard Blu do so much better on Good To Be Home.

Oh, and on that note, remember how Good To Be Home focused on re-establishing connections to Blu's west-coast roots and fading memories? Well, as expected, Bad Neighbor is nowhere close to being as cohesive, but if there is an underlying topic that takes precedence, it's girls and the screwing thereof. I could start by saying that there isn't a single song on this record that remotely approaches smooth or sexy with this production to justify that topic, but it's also where that clumsiness comes back to really bite these guys. Aside from Hodgy Beats saying he's got 'titty hands' and AMG's embracing of sleazy douchebaggery on 'The Stroll', most of this album focuses on Blu and M.E.D. getting blown or screwed in between slinging coke and bragging, including lines implying their 'Johnson' is magic. That particular gem comes from 'Birds', which compares the flock of girls after them with the titular animals with all sorts of bird references and I'm still trying to decide whether the gimmick is too corny to be offensive. The one song that strives for any sort of emotional depth is 'Finer Things' where it shows these guys overextending themselves to satisfy girls hungry for wealth and Blu's verse especially feels heartfelt, but even there the attitude is kind of noxious, especially when you follow it with 'Burgundy Whip' which is all about your expensive car! Granted, that's not even counting the tracks where I feel like I'm struggling to find content at all - between free verse bars that don't really build to much and songs that seem to give up on verses altogether mid song for extended instrumental outros - it happens about four times on the back half of this album, several of these tracks just feel unfinished!

In short, talk about falling short of expectations! Look, I'm willing to forgive a lot of content on a collaboration like this, but nobody looks good here, especially Madlib who has a lot of solid instrumental ideas but doesn't execute them particularly well. I'd say it feels like a demo or beat tape, given the mixing, but knowing Blu's tendency for these sorts of projects, it just feels messy without any decent excuse for it. I'll give Madlib credit for wedging in some good melodies where he can, and Blu and M.E.D. do manage to get off some solid, if not particularly interesting verses - I'd argue MF Doom, Oh No, and Black Spade manage to bring together the best bars - but damn, this was a letdown. For me, I'm thinking a 5/10 and only a recommendation if you're a hardcore fan curious about a new project. But everyone involved has done better, and I was definitely hoping for more.

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