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Madlib - Beat Konducta Vol. 3-4: In India

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Artist: Madlib

Album: Beat Konducta Vol. 3-4: In India

Label: Stones Throw

Review date: Sep. 26, 2007


Madlib - "Indian Hump" (Beat Konducta In India (Vol. 3-4))


Madlib’s latest album, Beat Konducta Vol. 3-4: In India is, like its predecessor Vol. 1-2: Movie Scenes, an entirely instrumental album, without rapping or other original vocals. But unlike previous wordless albums by Madlib and his ilk, the purpose of In India is foggy. It is neither a set of beats to be jacked nor a uniform body deliberately composed in movements. It is, instead, like an assembly of notes and sketches, immensely promising but hardly final, and tied together only by the thinnest of thematic bows – in this case, a Bollywood motif. Although clearly instrumental in its musical form, In India is questionably “instrumental” in the other sense of the word – it is ambiguous what end, if any, this album serves.

Hip hop, by its very nature, is dominated by the voice – it is, perhaps, the most logocentric of pop genres. At this point in time, the limits of the genre are not so rigid that an instrumental album cannot comfortably be declaimed as hip hop. But given the persistent critical emphasis on the quality of verbal delivery – consider the way that we generally describe beats as “backing,” or providing the support to, rappers – the proper way to gauge the value of an instrumental record remains opaque. Rappers are easy to assess because we can reliably describe how they speak to us. DJs and producers, however, speak – if their work can be identified properly as “speech” – nonverbally, and must therefore be judged according to some other standard.

That standard has been developing as producers like Madlib have staked their careers on the release of beats-only albums. His Shades of Blue, a reinterpretation of Blue Note’s vast and hallowed jazz catalogue, and J Dilla’s posthumous Donuts stand out at two such examples of full-length records that captivated in absence of words. Those records shared a few of the same broad qualities: namely, strong production, unique approaches to their craft, and the ability to harness more than a dozen beats into a coordinated whole. Shades and Donuts are beat tapes only according to the narrowest of understandings. For sure, someone could come easily use an individual song as an accompaniment for rhyming. Yet, reducing these records to a rapper’s mise en place would be shortsighted. Every song on those albums was comfortable on its own terms and in relation to the songs arranged to precede and follow it. Each was already sufficient but also necessary to the greater work of art in which it is located.

In India, by comparison, lacks some of these features. On the one hand, In India provides a few marvels of beat construction. The phrasing found in Indian ragas partners squarely with Madlib’s looped rhythmic patterns. Songs like “OnThatNewThing,” “Dark Alley Incidental Music” and “Another Getaway” masterfully use snippets of Indian music as foregrounding melody and, in Madlib’s parsing and placement, as a counterpoint to the songs’ underlying rhythm. In addition, and most obviously, In India’s basis in foreign sources is unusual yet inviting. The connection between South Asia and hip hop have been made before – remember Punjabi MC? – but it, nonetheless, is a mode not often pursued. The result is a fine balance of the familiar and the exotic.

For all of its merits, however, In India fails to meet its potential as an entire work. The arrangement of the songs is sloppy; the central organizing principle seems to be that every song has roots in India. This transcontinental pollination may be a welcome addition to a cramped genre, but it fails to get Madlib much beyond basic novelty points. The individual songs, themselves, are also sometimes lacking. In some places, like “Freeze” or “Masala,” Madlib stakes a firm beat or phrase but does not do much else with it other than let it play repeatedly. These tracks end up flatter than they should be, more akin to a simple riddim than a fully developed song. Unlike the stronger material on In India, they beg for a rapper to complete what Madlib has begun.

The problems of In India are the same as those identified in Movie Scenes and, to some extent, in Madlib’s voluminous output in general. In India feels rushed, if not haphazard. One wonders whether Madlib was ever committed to developing the record into something more definite than the ephemera offered here: a compendium of interesting but incomplete works, sufficient in parts to stand alone, but, on the whole, falling short of the high bar Madlib has set for himself. True to his name, Madlib has composed a set of musical one-liners on In India. Some tracks are aphorisms; others are mere declarations. Together, they amount to nothing greater.

By Ben Yaster

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