Madlib loves Brazilian music. Will you love his renditions as much as he does?
The liner notes to Jackson Conti's Sujinho introduce the album with a simple but intriguing declarative: "Madlib loves Brasilian music."
First things first. The "Jackson" in "Jackson Conti" is Otis Jackson, Jr., known in music circles as Madlib. Yep, the same "Madlib" who, according to the liner notes, loves Brasilian music. The same Madlib who is quite possibly one of, if not the, hardest working hip-hop artists today. Even if you don't know his name, chances are good you've been exposed to Madlib's skills on the production tip. Madlib has been the man behind the boards for artists such as Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, Ghostface Killah, De La Soul, Percee P., and Mos Def.
His own discography rolls deep, spanning an array of genres, themes, and altar egos. Madlib cranks out music at an obsessive pace, causing some to wonder if he needs his considerable passion and inspiration tempered by healthy doses of editing. His projects include, but are not limited to: The Unseen and The Further Adventures of Lord Quas, under his helium-voiced Quasimoto alias; Madvillainy, a collaboration with MF Doom; Liberation, a collaboration with Talib Kweli; Jaylib, with the late great J. Dilla; albums by Yesterday's New Quintet, Madlib's jazz ensemble; and his "beat tapes" from his Beat Konducta series.
In particular, The Beat Konducta, Volumes 3-4: In India contained action-packed Bollywood-themed nuggets of crate digging goodness. I probably liked this installment of The Beat Konducta series more than most, but the overall point remains unchallenged -- the point being that, yeah, Madlib "loves Brasilian music" but the man has a passion for music of all sorts. To borrow from the liner notes again, Madlib "is an artist who gives one new ears every couple of years if you choose to pay close enough attention." His is a journey through the dimensions of sound, and his passion for the journey helps to explain why many of his compositions seem to have little regard for silence. Madlib's work is often busy, intricate, and multi-layered.
Did someone say "multi-layered" and "Brasilian music"? Well, that's where the "Conti" in "Jackson Conti" enters the picture. Ivan "Mamao" Conti, the drummer for the influential Brazilian band Azymuth, lends his rhythmic chops to the "Jackson Conti" project. His off-center rhythms are distinctive to the Azymuth sound, which might be described as an easy listening, spastic samba. Keep in mind, however, that "easy listening" isn't meant to have the negative connotations here that it has in some circles. Say "easy listening" to some people and the assumption is that you're talking about music made to cure insomnia. Azymuth's samba doido, or "crazy samba", is nothing of the sort. Relaxing? Sure it is, but it's far from boring.
Transferring that sound to Sujinho's mixture of covers and original compositions doesn't create some earth-shattering cocktail of hip-hop, Brazilian music, and smooth jazz. It might be nice if it did -- groundbreaking even -- but it doesn't. Actually, I don't get the feeling "Jackson Conti" was concocted for that task. Don't go into this listening experience expecting to find a simple attempt to meld hip-hop and jazz. Instead, expect to hear two men setting out to prove not only that Madlib "loves Brasilian music" but also that, by the end of Sujinho's 73 minutes, you'll love it too.
What's not to love? Part of the joy of Sujinho is its smart sequencing, opening with 32 seconds of Mamao's percussive discourse in "Mamaoism". Akin to the introductory skit of a hip-hop release, "Mamaoism" sets forth a musical philosophy, calibrating the listener's ears to Ivan Conti's cadence. Later in the album, "Tijuca Man", a Conti composition, reinforces the importance of rhythm as the collection's musical heartbeat. Since the Mamaoist rhythm acts as the album's core, the sequencing provides a variety of tempo changes, some welcome, and others quite jarring. One composition, "Papaia" threatens to weigh the project down with its bulky 10 minutes of music, but a tempo and instrumental change around the six-minute-and-30-second mark helps to keep things fresh.
After the opening, the journey moves forward, through quick studies like the stutter-stepping "Barumba" and its near-atonal piano, and then careening through festive numbers such as the horn-infused George Duke piece "Brasilian Sugar", Moreira's "Xibaba", and Dom Um Romao's "Waiting on the Corner". Each piece conjures a distinct mood, as in the mysterious snake charming vibe of "Praca da Republica". Likewise, "Sao Paula Nights" offers an undulating soundscape that sounds a lot like a carefully composed background of cicadas. In "Sao Paula Nights", there is a sense that nighttime reveals the tranquility that resides beneath our daily hustle and bustle. The journey ends with the energetically paced "Segura esta Onda", a Jackson Conti original described in the album notes as a tribute to Azymuth. That track gets really funky and spaced-out around the four-minute-and-35-second mark before merging back into its relaxed groove a little after the fifth minute. It's a short stretch but it's a trip nonetheless.
The biggest nitpick with Sujinho? Well, some songs, through their repetition and consistency, make the album sound like a collection of background music rather than fully realized works. Some tracks, like the aforementioned "Barumba", are simply too good to be so easily cast aside. There are also, among other touches, flourishes of horns, delightful patches of xylophone, and surprising bits of accordion, all of which help to move the music to the foreground. Maybe some of the cowbell could have been avoided, but that's a minor league complaint.
No, the problem is that there are too many stretches that allow the listener's mind to wander and drift away from the main event. Not that there's anything wrong with "background music". In fact, I defeated many a pixilated videogame foe with Sujinho playing behind me. It's like I can't be stopped with "Berimbau", "Casa Forte", and "Amazon Stroll" as my themes. But Sujinho isn't the type of album that dominates the mood. Once you've heard it, it's an album you'll reach for to satisfy a craving for its particular sound.