The problem here is simple: good beats, passable rapping. Neither Blu nor Med have the imaginative rhymes of MF DOOM (especially circa 2004) or the tight, trailblazing flow of Freddie Gibbs, or even the humour of Madlib’s alter-ego, Quasimoto. Blu is as reliable as always, but his voice forever remains cadence-less (he was always at the mercy of his producers, which is why the imaginative beats of NoYork! – which also featured Madlib – might be his best album). Elsewhere, MED, who worked with Madlib on The Unseen and Madvillainy, is almost a complete write-off: he gets the syllables right, but he rarely links them in a way that’s worth repeating. Both rappers effectively evaporate in the thick haze of the marijuana smoke. Hell, even the guest spots on Bad Neighbor pale in comparison to the ones from Pinata.
Or, to put it another way, this album sounds like a few friends passing a joint around until they are all passed out on a sunny afternoon. That’s fine, of course, since that’s a good an afternoon as any, but it’s a disappointment in comparison to the joint-fueled jaunt that was Madvillainy or the joint-fueled ride through L.A. that was Pinata. Both those albums had better rapping to match their stronger atmospheres and more distinct songs, even though Madvillainy’s tracks were shorter and less song-oriented, more focused on the overall flow of the entire record.
Regardless, a new collection of Madlib beats is a gift no matter who’s rapping or singing on top, and he gives us just what we’ve come to expect by now: tiny microcosms of sounds over heavy and hazy bass lines. The MF DOOM-featuring “Knock Knock” is representative, a bass interval that imitates the title, a scratch-funk guitar over-top, and an ending that introduces a jazzy keyboard line. It would have been nice if both MED and Blu expanded on the concept of DOOM ransacking Blu and MED’s house while they’re away. MED quickly forgets about all that as soon as he thinks of sex; Blu doesn’t even bother.
Bad Neighbor does have trouble taking off at the start. Both “Serving” and “Peroxide” have their issues. “Serving”s beat is one of the weaker ones on the album, and whereas Domo Genesis brought his A-game on Pinata, Odd Future-mate Hodgy Beats does this when he gets the mic: “I’m the titty man, hands on some titties, man / I got titty hands” (though “Mary’s get married to cosmopolitans” was a good line that almost makes up for it). On “Peroxide,” the heavily-manipulated and awkwardly melodic choruses were a bad idea, and the beat – a skittering line juxtaposed over a bass lurch – is essentially repeated on the title track; truthfully, the album doesn’t really start until “Get Money.”
The second side is where Bad Neighbor really shines, as soon as Anderson .Paak (who recently made his breakthrough on Dr. Dre’s Compton) comes in over the heavy drum-clap and lovely bed of vocal samples on “The Strip”: it’s one of the best features of the album. The following “Finer Things” has four rappers waxing romantic over a beat that’s practically a dialogue between a man whispering sweet-nothings into his lady’s ear (“PSST!”) and a female sample as a woman reacting kindly (and the first verse is MED’s best on the album, mostly for the way he enters by rhyming “Beyond”, “We On”, “Eon”, and “Neon”). “Drive In” is the album’s friendliest beat thanks to its plucked string hook and chipmunk soul; perhaps Madlib’s most playful beat in a decade. “Belly Full” has a nice horn hook and a mischievous, cartoonish piano line that recalls Madvillainy; “The Buzz” has lovely strings to close the album. And “Birds” (about women, not the animal) is interesting to say the least thanks, to the beat built of samples of the title animal.
Oh yeah: “Burgundy Whip” is also here, the title track of an EP released by the three artists in 2013 in case people missed it the first time. It’s still a highlight: catchy, harmonized choruses (though they might too fast for Jimette Rose) and a super-kinetic bassline.