Hip-hop has dominated popular music in the 21st century for one simple reason: most hip-hop is instantly accessible. While the general public loves the mainstream, a small group of people — readers of this website and the like — want hip-hop with more substance. Something you can listen to and find new things in after 100 listens. These listeners form a large part of Madlib’s fan base. The abstract hip-hop scene has always focused more on musical quality than danceability, and thus it takes a few more listens to fully grasp all aspects of the music.
The fifth and sixth volumes (originally released individually on vinyl) of Madlib’s Beat Konducta series have 42 tracks all dedicated to perhaps the most well-known abstract hip-hop producer of all time, the late J Dilla. And while countless Dilla tributes precede this one, Madlib’s may be the best of them all, the only album to truly live up to the excellence of J Dilla in style and substance, perhaps because he, along with J Rocc, was one of Dilla’s closest associates. Madlib’s album structures have always felt like Dilla’s, with short, simple tracks that don’t develop on their own, but rather develop as longer segments through multiple tracks. He forces the listener to hear Beat Konducta as an entire album instead of picking the good songs and deleting the rest.
Still true to Dilla, the album’s structure has its strengths and its faults. The 42 tracks span an hour and seven minutes, so sitting through the entirety of the album is a chore if the listener really wants to focus on the music. As most songs are under two minutes long, nothing really settles in and grooves. Even the longest song, “Never Front (Eyes Up)”, is constantly changing during its four-minute-and-twenty-second duration. Every beat feels like a transition into the next one. Of course, this should be expected when listening to a Madlib album, especially one dedicated to Dilla, but these issues must always be noted.
The always metamorphosing style of the album has its benefits too, keeping the listener engaged at all times. Some of the beats feel like sudden climaxes after a long build-up due to Madlib’s strong sampling. He includes a variety, from the John Williams-esque “The String (Heavy Jones)” to the ’70s funk-rock of “Infinity Sound (Never Ending)” to the soulful vocals found in “Anthenagin’ (?)”. Mixing soul, funk, jazz, rock, hip-hop, house, and hints of many other genres into a cohesive blend, all 42 tracks have a slightly different feel to them, some tranquil and some powerfully driving. These samples also stay true to Dilla, heavily altered and broken so that most beats never quite settle in how one might expect them to. The off-kilter nature of the music gives the album more substance, as it takes a few listens to figure out what Madlib is really doing with the beat. The previously mentioned “Anthenagin’ (?)” and “Infinity Sound (Never Ending)” even go through complicated beat patterns, striving away from 4/4 and placing accents on unexpected beats many times in their short durations.
Madlib does everything in his power to make his tribute to J Dilla as true to the original as possible. The awkward, off-kilter beats, the soulful, varied samples, and the chameleon-like, fluid album structure all sound almost identical to Donuts. The tribute is certainly fitting, but hopefully Madlib can take his work here and move forward, possibly going where Dilla may have dared to go. While the album is enjoyable for the listener, it feels almost like an exercise that Madlib performed, thoroughly examining just how Dilla made each sound. Undoubtedly, the process taught him something and he can realize his own full potential in future works.