Music Reviews

”16 Effortlessly Blended Tracks” – Album Review: Madlib – Sound Ancestors

Tolu Sangowawa

Organic vs Synthetic? Abstract vs Familiar? Old School vs Contemporary? While the teaming up of veteran US hip hop producer Madlib and UK electronic music producer Four Tet may have sparked all of these music production dilemmas, their new album ‘Sound Ancestors’ shows that a single record can possess all of these attributes in unison.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where to start when defining beat-maker Otis Jackson Jr (known professionally as Madlib). One of the most critically acclaimed producers of our generation, the California-born artist has described himself as a ‘D.J. first, producer second, and M.C. last’. Funnily enough, he probably doesn’t give himself enough credit in this description. Of his 9 solo studio albums over the past 20 years, several can be categorised as jazz albums, and he has made a habit of collaborating with some of the best underground rappers in the world on records such as ‘Madvillainy’ (with the late MF DOOM) and ‘Piñata’ (with rapper Freddie Gibbs).

One thing it never feels is overwhelming

It is perhaps no surprise then that Madlib eventually crossed paths with musical mastermind Kieran Hebden, better known as Four Tet. While officially listed as a solo effort, ‘Sound Ancestors’ was largely made in collaboration with the British producer, who receives arrangement and mastering credits for curating and editing hundreds of beats composed by Madlib into 16 effortlessly blended tracks. For an album that was cut from hundreds of sample-heavy beats across two years, one thing it never feels is overwhelming.

After the opening three tracks, you’re not exactly sure of the direction in which the album is going in. The grunge-like loop and desperate vocals in The Call might take you by surprise, until the infectious drum rhythm and reggae vocal sample in Theme de Crabtree settle you into a groove more familiar to Madlib’s usual work. The following song Road of the Lonely Ones is Madlib at his very best. The delightful use of a sample from 1960s Philadelphia soul group The Ethics introduces the psychedelic soul element to the album, which is maintained in later tracks.

If you were to rank Madlib’s discography based on the quality and effectiveness of his samples used, you’d soon discover that this is an impossible task, and would most likely end up plumbing the depths of obscure 1950s/60s records (been there, done that). It can be argued, however, that ‘Sound Ancestors’ may well be the beat-maker’s best body of work in terms of vocal samples. The recurring, heavy and rumbling basslines accompany harmonic and soft vocals throughout, creating a fascinating contrast that leaves the listener somewhere in-between.

Four Tet’s impact on the album shouldn’t be overlooked. Loose Goose brings out his raw and unsettling approach to production, with his heavy polyphonic texture creating a sense of fear. By the time the song reaches its most vigorous and dynamic moment, the vibrating drums take centre-stage and don’t let you rest. Sitting in the 5th seat of the record, it’s almost a reminder that this isn’t any old album, or even any old Madlib album, this is ‘Sound Ancestors’.

Jackson and Hebden barely give any time to process all of this, as before you know it you’re thrown into the next track. This is a vital theme in all of Madlib’s work – short songs that leave the listener craving more, while not allowing us to fully process what we’ve just heard until we go back and listen to it all again. This is why it’s always difficult to pinpoint a favourite Madlib song as opposed to a favourite album of his, as the songs act as small yet significant pieces of a much bigger puzzle.

Creating a bubbling tension until the tight percussion and desperate vocals burst through and carry you in a different direction

Hopprock is another which could easily fit on one of Four Tet’s popular solo releases. The minute long intro of a chilling overlay of an answerphone will give anyone goosebumps, regardless of who will admit it. The frightening sense of mystery could equally be found in a Radiohead album, creating a bubbling tension until the tight percussion and desperate vocals burst through and carry you in a different direction. While it’s an intense and, dare I say, petrifying experience, you almost want it to continue for a couple of minutes longer than it does. This is maybe the only negative of Madlib’s trademark style, that the listener can sometimes feel robbed of an experience that we (for some strange reason) feel we deserve. The optimistic among us may be waiting for a remix of some sort in the near future.

The chaotic, sample-heavy arrangement of One For Quartabê/Right Now feels like it’s screaming out for the late rapper MF DOOM to deliver some wit and rhymes amongst the unorthodox song structure and instrumentation. Despite a frantic opening 80 seconds or so, the second half of the song provides a slower, more meaningful instrumental for listeners to get lost in. The absence of lyrics allows the listener to apply their own take and narrate their own life, whether it be sentimental or joyful.

Beyond the obscure samples, the abstract loops, and the repetitive chilled out grooves, there remains an unpredictability to Madlib’s work, which has been exploited and enhanced to full effect by Four Tet. The approach to vocals on ‘Sound Ancestors’ is a personal highlight, as the various vocal samples are used in a purely textual and harmonic manner, not taking centre stage and letting the music dictate the mood.

Whilst ‘Sound Ancestors’ is billed as a record of 16 different songs, Madlib has truly delivered us 16 different tales, using sounds from a multitude of genres as tools to narrate the tales in the only way he knows how. Whilst the genre-fluidity and transitions can feel abrupt on the first listen, the underlying theme is hip-hop and, most importantly, the rejection of rigidity.

Tolu Sangowawa

Featured image courtesy of Carl Pocket via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

In-article images courtesy of @fourtetkieran via No changes made to these images.

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