One rapper/one producer combos can be a tricky affair. Without the variation that comes from different production styles, MCs too often get stuck in one flow or subject, resulting in an album that feels more like alternative takes of the same song than it does a cohesive project. Madlib has never had that problem. Known for his seminal collaboration with MF DOOM, Madvillainy, as well as any number of collaborative albums with the likes of J Dilla, Blu, and Talib Kweli, the LA producer is a master of bringing the best out of any MC he works with.
Last week, Freddie Gibbs dropped Bandana, the second album in a trilogy of collaborations between him and producer Madlib. The first two projects–2014’s Pinata and Bandana–have received favorable reviews so far. These one-rapper, one-produer albums are Madlib’s specialty. It’s a different approach than the norm. Most of Madlib’s peers are more likely to do one-off singles with a wide range of artists. This model allows him to connect more deeply with an album’s concept and tone. If the album hits, both the artist and producer reap the benefits.
From an artistic perspective, it’s a breath of fresh air from today’s BeatStars-driven marketplace that I wrote about in How Hip-Hop Producers Lost Their Power. But from a business perspective, solo producer-artist albums lack diversification. The end output is riskier.
Artists can be limited by the range of one producer’s sound. If that producer’s sound can captures the artist’s full range, then it works. But if not, it falls flat. It’s like a balanced portfolio. If someone bought Amazon stock three years ago, they’re probably feeling good right now. But if that same money was distributed among 8 other stocks (like a typical rap album with multiple producers) the portfolio would be far less dependent on one company.
These projects are also a risk for producers. Beatmakers like Zaytoven and Metro Boomin have cornered the mumble trap subgenre of hip-hop. By focusing on a collective sound instead of a specific artist, their talent is spread out across teh genre. If and when the next Atlanta rapper breaks out, there’s a good chance that Zaytoven or Metro have already worked with that artist.
But solo-producer albums still have relevance beyond Madlib. Hip-hop’s beatmakers of yesteryear got their claim to fame for their body of work on classic albums. Look at Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg (Doggystyle), Jay Z and DJ Premier (Reasonable Doubt), or even Timbaland and Justin Timberlake (FutureSex/LoveSounds). These albums were far more common in the days of monoculture. Yet today, it makes single producer albums riskier than ever. We’ve also seen the personal fallout that happens because of these projects. YG is in his bag when he collaborates with Mustard. My Krazy Life (2014) put the dynamic duo on the map. But when the two temporarily had a falling out, YG’s 2016 followup Still Brazy suffered. YG didn’t regain his tempo until he re-upped with Mustard on 2018’s Stay Dangerous.
Madlib clearly has his niche with these projects. They clearly work for him. But that doesn’t mean it will work for any producer. A risk is still a risk.