A Week’s Worth Review: Madlib’s “Sound Ancestors”

By Daniel Paiz

After a healthy hiatus from this growing series, I’m back to giving A Week’s Worth of attention to one album. For this edition, it’s the exploratory Madlib album Sound Ancestors. Madlib has worked with some of Hip-Hop’s best and now he’s expanding his creations to collaborate with Four Tet. Largely an instrumental tape laced over 16 tracks, there’s a little bit of everything for music fans out there to enjoy. If this is your first time experiencing Madlib then you might want to take a minute and go dig into his catalog. If it’s not, then you know what time it is.

Madlib’s skills on full display

For whatever reason, breaking this album down track by track just feels right. Each snippet is me trying to navigate the question of, is this a conceptual or not; it might be hard to determine. Here’s what I thought about as I dug into Madlib’s newest project, Sound Ancestors.

This experimental album has plenty of risks taken, but Madlib seems to turn everything he touches into gold. The Four Tet-assisted project strays from the Freddie Gibbs, MF DOOM realm of Hip-Hop that fans of this guy might be used to. However, it’s not a huge departure. Rather, it’s really just a glimpse into what the producer tackles when not focusing on a purely Hip-Hop album that’s made for verses. 

Madlib & Four Tet

A track-by-track review

There is No Time -Prelude is basically a cinematic introduction, setting the scene for whatever is next. However, it doesn’t tell us anything more than that. It’s very ambient, and that’s kind of it. 

The Call introduces the listener to what we might be in for. It’s rock heavy mixed with some funk and deejay scratches. Not sure what to call this when it comes to a larger concept, other than as listeners we might be in store for a timeline of music, but unsure of what the timeline is based off of.

Theme de Crabtree is a jam of a track, headnodic in nature. The brief vocals included tell us little, and by this point, this is feeling like a beat tape and not a conceptual album. Perhaps if you know a great deal about Madlib, then maybe he’s progressing through the sounds he’s crafted thus far in his career. Otherwise, like me you’re enjoying the tunes without much hope of a larger idea presenting itself. Sometimes, albums do not have a bigger message than, “hey, I enjoyed creating this music, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the process.”

Road of the Lonely Ones has some vocals associated with the titles in the beginning. It’s a nice mix of rock, hip-hop and contemporary pop sounds. This one too feels like an enjoyable creative session, with soulful verses (“did I treat you fair, or did I do you wrong?”) about halfway into the track. Perhaps this is another snapshot of Madlib’s past creeping in again, crafting soulful soundscapes that have been utilized across several genres. Perhaps I should stop looking so hard for a bigger concept. 

Everything from this point on is taken up another notch…

Loose Goose- here we gooooo, Damien Marley, Yasiin Bey, Talib Kweli, Nas…any of those emcees would sound superb on this track. Premium production right here. 

Dirtknock is one of a handful of tracks that feels like it’s produced for someone to lay rhymes over. Back to the beat tape theory while listening to this. 

Hopprock has some mystery to it, these voicemails feel like something that moves along the narrative…well. The narrative of sound, really. That’s it. A full sound right here, it feels like a track that Broken Bells or Banks & Steelz would create. It’s announcing something bigger coming, and that’s the next four bars of music. This one might be the jam of the album. I think I said that already though…

Riddim Chant is one of those classic teaser beats, much like “Space Submarine” from The Grand Alliance or “The New People” by Atmosphere. It pulls you in and right when you’re really jamming…it’s over. 

The title track Sound Ancestors feels like a nod to musical and cultural history in one way. In another, it’s more experimentation. Jazzy for those of you seeking out such vibes, but in a jam session kind of way. 

One for Quartabe/Right Now has that retro feel, both from the 70s/80s and from various movies that don’t come to mind right now. Another movement track brings back that sneaking suspicion of a concept laced throughout these songs. There’s been tracks that feel like they’re from different decades…almost chronicling the sonic ancestry of Madlib. 

Hang Out (Phone Off) could be a bit on the nose with reference to folks interactions with each other in person. For some reason it’s the first track I’ve heard reflecting modern day, with a right now kind of feel. Everything else has felt like it’s meant for a slightly earlier time period. 

Two for 2- For Dilla has to be a tribute to the legendary producer and beat maker. Dilla crafted sounds Madlib and few others could replicate occasionally. The mark left by Jay Dee on Hip-Hop and music in general will always need to be referenced. This soulful and rich sampling and production almost pushes me to go listen to some Dilla right now. 

Latino Negro is way too far down this album, why are there not more flamenco-esque tracks on this album and all albums? This feels like another snapshot of time, and by this point in the album, snapshots in time are really who the sound ancestors are for Madlib and company. 

The New Normal must be another nod to the present day. However this album was crafted might be how it’s done for the foreseeable future. This vibe is just asking for an emcee of some lyrical caliber (Royce Da 5’9, Black Milk, Brother Ali, somebody like that) to deliver the goods. SO headnodic. Might have to press charges for creating such illegal music, legal advice is being sought now. 

Chino is another snapshot vibe. If you’re sick of that term, I don’t know what to tell you, the jams seem to be blips in time that are captured in the audial spectrum. 

Duumbiyay feels like a very appropriate outro to the entire project. It signals the end much like the intro tracks starts things off. The piano and vocal pairing feels like a sonic conclusion, and yet…another moment in the musical life presented by Madlib. 

Final Verdict

Madlib can do anything he wants, he’s Madlib! If he wants to create a beat tape with some help from Four Tet, then that’s his prerogative. I guess I just didn’t realize he makes beat tapes like most veteran producers do. I think I have to move away from instrumental projects that I’m used to from artists like DJ Shadow and Pete Rock, and realize Madlib is multifaceted in his own right.

I’ll admit I am no expert on this artist; I know he’s been producing forever, but the range that he’s laid down is extensive. This project is symbolic of that, and it has that certain immeasurable something that all music strives to possess. That something is experience meeting creativity. The production reps have been done time and again by this artist. This project is a timely reminder of that. Whether you’re hearing this project as sonic snapshots of his musical experience and backgrounds, or simply enjoying a collection of tracks Madlib enjoyed creating, there’s no real reason not to give this project a few spins.

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