Tuesday, December 18, 2007

best free album (if you got there fast enough, suckers!)

on new year's eve 2006, a couple websites quietly prepared themselves for the online-only release of liberation, the nine-track collaboration between talib kweli and madlib, which was to be made available to the public for absolutely no charge. available online for only a week, liberation was downloaded over 100,000 times, making it 2007's first proper album and an important contribution to the ongoing discussion about musical property. though other online-only, sorta-free albums eventually overshadowed liberation, this album stands out for a couple major reasons: 1. it's not by radiohead and, 2. it proves madlib can make anyone sound incredible. the public reception of liberation was so favorable that it was eventually slated for proper release by kweli's own blacksmith label, and charted 60,000 sales in its first week.

talib kweli is not my favorite mc in the world. in fact, i usually don't bother listening to him - his squeaky voice and self-aggrandizing flow get on my nerves quickly, even on guest spots. madlib, on the other hand, is one of the most talented producers and musicians of the 21st century, with such vision and skill that he could take a dump in the studio, put it on wax, and it would still sound better than the latest will.i.am joint. so i downloaded liberation, excited for madlib's beats if not kweli's raps, but was pleasantly surprised by this cohesive and intelligent work. though the album is barely longer than an EP (total length is 30:12), both madlib and kweli deliver, the beats rich and varied, the rhymes, while still often shamelessly self-promoting (he compares himself to leonardo da vinci on "funny money"), are incisive and insightful.

liberation is madlib's first rap collaboration since 2004's madvillainy, but with over six full-lengths released in the interim, the beat konducta's style is anything but similar. a lot of madlib's more recent work is grounded in his solo releases, the beat konducta vol. 1 - vol. 4, and it easy to trace liberation back to that fertile ground. "whatkanido (can do it)," from the beat konducta vol. 1-2, was even directly replicated for liberation - renamed "what can i do," it is that album's final track. while madlib's beats are always based in the purest soul and jazz, his style has definitely evolved, and liberation, while only the prolific producer's first album of 2007, exemplifies his intelligent beatmaking abilities. kweli's aggrieved rhymes, buried and dirty in the mix, inspire some of madlib's darkest beats ever; "over the counter" and "engine runnin" are two such sinister cuts. "time is right" stands out thanks to madlib's vocal tweaking - the beat konducta sends kweli's voice through some old-school equipment so that the rapper sounds like a sample himself, and, in a particularly intuitive moment drops the beat after kweli, referencing myspace, rhymes "that's really me on that shit, not a representative," anticipating and fanning the astonishment. while madlib's instrumental works are accessible and enjoyable, liberation was a nice refresher of how his beats really come alive with an mc on top of them (an mc who isn't madlib, that is).

as i said above, i'm not really into talib kweli, and though i really like this album, wasn't into ear drum at all. i think liberation's quality is due mostly to madlib, but kweli's rhymes are often excellent. lyrically, kweli operates the two intertwined themes of himself and politics, and is passionate about both. "funny money," possibly liberation's finest track, features an unexpectedly light funk track from madlib and coy, smart raps from kweli. calling himself "mr. international," kweli big ups his own global popularity ("funny money" itself is a reference to foreign currency) and foreshadows what has become the political issue of the year: "illegal immigration gonna control hysteria." "over the counter" is clearly references the corrupted pharmaceutical industry, opening with the line "yo yo, we need some new leaders / politicians are lying, the artists are true divas." he then challenges the authenticity of the government's 9/11 story and claims "intelligence got you hooked" and is the new "drug of choice." liberation is a serious theme throughout the record, from "the show," where kweli rejects the n-word - "sayin' nigger just to keep our teeth white" - to "what can i do," an exhortation to the community to act, to finally reject the bloated corporate structure and two-faced government, an appropriate finishing point but not the end of the story.

liberation is short, almost a snippet of a hip hop, but contains some of the year's nastiest beats and informed lyrics. three of the album's nine tracks feature guests, but, interestingly, the finest raps are kweli's alone. madlib reestablishes himself as one of the best producers in the business, and talib kweli reaches a new lyrical high. with so much going for it, is it any surprise that "cds selling like nuclear weapons in north korea"?

"funny money" & "over the counter"
"whatkanido (can do it)" from the beat konducta vol. 1-2.

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