As trippy and blunted out as his multi-faceted instrumentals are, Madlib doesn’t have any trouble finding emcees that are willing to take stabs over his material for entire projects at a time. Not just Lootpack brethren or MF DOOM either, but notable mainstream-recognized artists like J Dilla (Champion Sound) and Talib Kweli (Liberation), whom had both masterminded classics of their own before teaming with Madlib. The secret in the Oxnard, California producer’s formula is that he keeps his soundbeds as “out there” as always, but he tweaks them to match the artist’s style enough for it to work. On OJ Simpson, his new full-length with Dilla collaborator/fellow Stones Throw signee Guilty Simpson, he continues this formula to perfection.
To properly enjoy OJ Simpson, listeners should deliberately look at it as a Madlib and Guilty Simpson collaboration—not just a Guilty Simpson album produced by Madlib. Nearly half of the album’s 57.7-minute is interludes with random TV/movie clips and instrumentals without Guilty rapping. This approach makes for a frustrating listening experience for those who simply want to hear rhymes over beats, but it captures the disjointed, sporadic cohesion that Madlib fans enjoy with his releases. Fortunately, Stones Throw has made all of the songs and skits separate so listeners can make their own playlist with the songs only.
While the skits may hold things up, the actual songs are largely substantial. Throughout his 12 tracks, Guilty handles topical rhymes and competent lyrical clinics. He uses “Karma Of A Kingpin” to narrate the rise and fall of Detroit hustlers he looked up to as a youngster, and “Back On The Road Again” copes with the ups and downs of the music industry grind. “Cali Hills” vividly chronicles his career and his relationship with Dilla and Madlib with anecdotes and little-known facts about their history.
But songs like the title track and “Trendsetters” show Guilty’s greatest strength: spitting witty, hard-nosed rhymes (“Playas need a lesson / Find another way to channel your aggression / Please, I’ve seen babies more threatening / You a newborn, I pop the heat / Consider that, getting rocked to sleep”) that complement his strong, brawny voice. These are the attributes heard on Guilty’s stellar street-stuck 2008 debut, Ode To The Ghetto, which Madlib worked on. Guest spots serve well too, as fellow Detroiter/Dilla collaborator Frank Nitty reclaims his early ’00s underground acclaim with verse on “Scratch Warning” while Strong Arm Steady hold their own on the dirty “Outside.”
Meanwhile, Madlib’s instrumentals balance Guilty’s gritty bars with his own eccentricity in several places. The villainous “Coroner’s Music” uses eerie synths to back Guilty’s rhymes that are “evil like three sixes,” menacing guitar twangs fuel “Mic Check 313,” and album closer “100 Styles” meshes no-nonsense flow with a lo-fi drum-line and scattered riffs.
Both sides had to bend for OJ Simpson to work, and the duo met each other in the middle. Guilty Simpson had to make his flow even more nimble to keep up with Madlib’s beat idiosyncrasies, and ‘Lib had to soil and step on his unconventional beats to tailor them for this project’s partner-in-rhyme. The result is a solid collaborative album, that finds each half obviously challenging themselves, but equally outside their comfort zones.