Section 1: In Which I Tell You Things About the Album (On Movie Scenes)
Madlib, the genius young producer (yes, I believe he’s earned the title of “genius” by now) behind so many diverse projects over the years, from Madvillainy to the Quasimoto albums to Yesterdays New Quintet to Jaylib to DJ Rels, has finally dropped his instrumental album. It’s on Stones Throw, which makes sense—through his prolific production work he’s practically come to define the Stones Throw sound by now—and the comparisons to J Dilla’s Donuts are inevitable. Both albums are longer works composed of 30-something shorter tracks, most averaging about one to two minutes in length, and both are largely instrumental, using any vocals—usually sampled and chopped—mainly as instruments. Both are on Stones Throw, and the two were frequent collaborators, notably on Champion Sound. There’s even some timeline confusion. Both editions of Movie Scenes came out first, on vinyl-only late last year, but Donuts beat them to CD. In fact, attentive listeners can even recognize some identical samples—the brilliant soul vocals from Donuts‘s “Welcome to the Show” are severely chopped and used in brief vocal punches on a track here—but, overall, the albums have very different feels. Donuts was a more soulful, colorful departure from Dilla’s subtler production work, a choppy master-work of soul, funk, and hip-hop beats, while Movie Scenes is more of a distinctive Madlib production, his trademark crate-digging fingerprints all over these well-crafted cuts.
The beats are, to the track, great. “Third Ear (More)” unhinges and rehinges itself with a slurry-throbbing, lugubrious bassline; “Chopstyle (Suey Blast)” is a roar of lonely synth that shudders in and out of tempo to the tune of thick hand-claps. “Toe Fat (Ghettozone)” roars into life as a fistful of throat-howled, dirty-blossoming soul, but Madlib expertly chops it back into line, cutting it into a tightly bouncing loop embellished with dark-snarly sax, on which the sample cuts in and out within the beat’s bounds.
Where much of Donuts was a laid-back and smooth exercise in soul, Movie Scenes‘s eye to the past is an angry one. “Gold Jungle (Tribe)” juxtaposes tribal drumming with rough laughter and sampled shouts of “fuck y’all!” and “jive-ass nigger!”, while on “Pyramids (Change)”, Madlib pulls off an impressive word transformation through chopping and re-chopping a sample. Initially a voice cuts in repeatedly with “funny how things can change, nigger”, but Madlib eventually flips the words to “funny how niggers can change things”. Then comes “funny how change can nigger things,” and, next, “funny how things can nigger change”. Finally, the music cuts out and Madlib begins the word “nigger” repeating rapidly, shaving slightly from the end each time until the chant becomes “nigga! nigga! nigga!”, and finally, disturbingly, re-cutting the sample into “a gun! a gun! a gun!”. It’s a brilliant moment, and a testament to Otis Jackson Jr.‘s genius with the vinyl.
Overall, Movie Scenes is a great record, making up for any lack of cohesiveness with a consistently brilliant parade of wonderful hip-hop beats. It’s ever-changing, ever-morphing, ever-different. It at points feels like it lacks that spark of feeling that made Donuts such a vital record, but only rarely, and barely at that. A lot of people have been calling this the soundtrack to a movie that was never made; this is not that. This is not the movie itself, either. This is a collage of movie scenes, senseless, beautiful, visual.
Section 2: In Which the Album Tells Things About Me-You (Some Movie Scenes)
“Tape Hiss (Dirty)” is an afternoon walk through sun-flooded city streets. Insistently clunky piano chords plod beautifully like wishes, and the metal sizzles of horn are smooth brown-shoe soles on pavement. Chunks of life, with tiny flourishes, buying apples at the open-air market.
“Third Ear (More)” begins from a horror movie. The solidly manic initial burst of toy-electric-guitar is sublimated by hoarse whisper into a nightmare cloud, staggery heartbeats floating in minor-key twinkles and stitched together by murder squeals of screechy strings. Then it shapeshifts entirely into a slow ride down grim iron-gray hills, half funeral and half funereal. The ground is a collage of futuristic synths and barely-noticed, dramatic-high piano chords that fit together like fingers, forming the substance for the main sound to walk on. And the central string loop is gorgeously devoid of passion, a clean, amber sustained-exhalation that describes its sonorously-shifting nasal circles like reluctant knowledge.
“Left on Silverlake (Ride)” begins heavily enough, but little chattery-shake rings slip through and the color of the film changes. When the vocals come in the sun rises, gold like butter and tennis-ball dreams. Red velvet curtains part to reveal the beautiful country town, and the villagers are parading in their quaint apparel, lifting their hardy farmer faces to every woozy swoon of the trombones. Then the audacious little whiny sax comes in, we can see the boy is standing in a field without any friends. Listening to the hum of the thunder that’s rum-bummeling up, and the muffled words of the ancient monsters.
“Box Top (Cardboard Dues)” is a tensely-shivering, sinister car chase: a slow-motion pursuit, stripped of its blinding speed but rendered in perfect black-and-white film noir, the curved lines of the cars nosing ominously around inner-city corners and poking into the unknown. These men have secreted guns.
“Stax (Strings)” is a girl in a spotlight, sitting on a piano, a pleading drama queen completely superceded by the whirling flourish of orchestra that replaces her. She pulls her way back in, and the ruthless strings categorically excise her again, choosing instead the ghostly-disembodied soul singers. “Mmmnn-mmmnn-mmmnn-mmmnn…”
“Black Mozart (Opus II)” is a run through the stark angles of a city at night. Shapes loom, bright shadows explode from the overwhelming, tangible dark, clean bursts of piano.
“Spanish Bells (High Dreams)” is an old-world cluttery ambience of tremuloso strings, clambering piano-lines and little buzzy dream synths, punctuated by intermittent blasts of electric guitar riffage. The movie scene is a timeless European cathedral in a vielle ville, right as you realize that this particular place of worship is the site of the climactic action-movie vampire battle.
And “Old Age (Youngblood)” is the wise old man. He is sitting in a chair, and his eyes are deep-set in his hair. Badass funky guitar. Fucking crazy. His gaze dispenses you its wisdom even as his sideburns gasp, like a dying rasp of life through a slit throat. The invisible finger-snaps.
These are not movies, and this is not a movie soundtrack. These are scenes, and Madlib is a master cinematographer.