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8 Tracks: No beef, just a Madlib beat

Black Thought and Your Old Droog feature on Madlib's new track "REEKYOD."
Mathieu Bitton
Courtesy of the artist
Black Thought and Your Old Droog feature on Madlib's new track "REEKYOD."

8 Tracks is your antidote to the algorithm. Each week, NPR Music producer Lars Gotrich, with the help of his colleagues, makes connections between sounds across time.

Where were you when you first heard a Madlib beat? Mine was 21 years ago at WUOG, the student-run station for the University of Georgia, where I was one of three music directors. Our desks were just stacks of CDs and hulking PCs; music was a constant in the office as we debated airplay and fielded phone calls from college radio publicists. Finals would have just ended, so when Madlib's "Slim's Return" spun up, the muggy waves of summer suddenly hit me with cut-up flute, fluttering orchestra sweeps, watery vibraphone, disembodied MCs and turntable scratches.

That song came from Shades of Blue, which gave the producer access to the Blue Note vault to remix the venerated jazz label's catalog. On "Slim's Return" alone, he reshapes The Three Sounds' lush "Book of Slim" and flutist Bobbi Humphrey's breezy "Blacks and Blues," but also snips elements from KRS-One and Gang Starr. The music feels like a magic trick. The album did and didn't prepare me for what would happen in 2004: Madvillainy, Madlib's virtuosic collaboration with MF DOOM, who ended up becoming my favorite rapper of all time.

Madlib's got way too many pseudonyms and projects, but I do my best to keep up with his pace. Jahari Massamba Unit, his jazz duo with Karriem Riggins, released YHWH is LOVE just a couple months back. In case y'all thought Madlib was just beats, this is a reminder that the dude's got serious chops on just about every instrument you can name. But then Madlib drops a new track like "REEKYOD" and I am reminded once again that Madlib is just built different. On this edition of 8 Tracks, we bow down to Madlib's mastery, plus check out new music by Charly Bliss, Fana Hues and reminisce on an old Ted Leo record.

Madlib (feat. Black Thought & Your Old Droog), "REEKYOD"

It's a boom bap that drags — not behind the beat, but like a rogue planet spinning in its own orbit. Space detritus joins and exits the party as need be: muted horn blasts, extraterrestrial squiggles, Sun Ra-style synth noise, string squeaks and the occasional beat blast that sends everything off-kilter for a split second. Two generations of rappers take a rocket to stake their place in space: Black Thought spits, "I'm not sparing the rod / Not as long as I'm still inhaling air and alive," while Your Old Droog clowns on haters: "Heard somebody say Droog is not a complete artist / You better off trusting a man with three barbers."

NIKI, "Too Much of a Good Thing"

If NIKI's last album, Nicole, kept big emotions at bay with an atmospheric pop mood, it seems like the forthcoming Buzz will shake everything loose. With a slinky-but-spare string section and a snare-and-bass-drum beat that struts like new boots on an old sidewalk, "Too Much of a Good Thing" gives the Los Angeles-based Indonesian pop singer more room to swagger. The music drops out when she dares her crush to make a move: "Not to jinx it, but I wanna be the reason / Your future lovers keep changing with the seasons, babe."

Fana Hues, "Paper Tigers"

When I first heard Fana Hues' flora + fana in 2022, I could hear a restlessness in her music, which the singer-songwriter confirmed in an interview for NPR: "I do feel like the music that I make is R&B, and then some." This track starts in a familiar zone — a soulful, off-ya-shoulder pocket and keys that catch that sparkling feeling of new love — but then "Paper Tigers" slams down a psychedelic guitar riff. The shift is sudden, but she communicates an urgent passion, "You're the one I waited for," with the not-so-subtext: And I'm not letting you go.

Charly Bliss, "Nineteen"

In its indie-rock days, Charly Bliss could capture youthful desperation with a squeaky spunk, but as the band's moved toward pop, so, too, has its introspection deepened. Perhaps "Nineteen," a slow-burning ballad worthy of a placement on The O.C. back in the early 2000s, can only come with some distance. It's a song about young love — how everything aches because your heart doesn't know your head from its ass — but more importantly, "Nineteen" asks us to be kind to the many mistakes that were made in the midst of blooming. Oh, and Eva Hendricks absolutely sells this vocal performance.

Supermilk, "Sweat"

Forgive me for feeling nostalgic for 2004 (see above: Madlib), but it's also been 20 years since The Futureheads released its self-titled debut and, frankly, more folks should know about the English band's tautly thrilling post-punk. The Futureheads' secret weapon? Meticulously syncopated, ping-ponged close harmonies, which I was tickled to also find in this revved-up power-pop ripper by London's Supermilk. "Sweat" lays down more fuzz and allows more room for the melody to spiral, but satisfies my need for buttoned-up harmonic frenzy.

Wild Up, "Our Father"

My colleague Tom Huizenga once summed up Julius Eastman's music as "challenging, mischievously irreverent and sometimes ecstatic." The equally euphoric and daring ensemble Wild Up has taken up the challenge and will release its fourth volume of Eastman's music this summer. Our Father is one of Eastman's last known works and, for someone who punked up the classical world, it's rather austere. Written for two male voices, here singer Davóne Tines doubles his intoxicating bass-baritone voice over sparse strings for a liturgical chant that haunts the chapel.

Gastr del Sol, "The Bells of St. Mary's"

In 1996, Gastr del Sol contributed a version of this obscure, seasonally adjacent tune to a subversive Christmas compilation only released in Japan. (The Christmas Album also featured avant-tinsel toe-tappers by Melt-Banana, Secret Chiefs 3 and a not-so-"Silent-Night" via Merzbow.) The forthcoming album We Have Dozens of Titles collects live, unreleased and otherwise hard-to-find tracks by David Grubbs and Jim O'Rourke's short-lived, but well-beloved duo, from an era when "post-rock" often meant adventurous rockers trying their hand at post-classical composition. Gastr del Sol strips the melody of its schmaltz — "The Bells of St. Mary's" was revived in the 1940s by Bing Crosby, it should be noted — for a slow-motion snowglobe shake of droning organ, hiccuping synths and left-hand piano minimalism.

Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, "Little Dawn (Demo)"

If y'all will permit me one last formative piece of 2004, Ted Leo & The Pharmacists' Shake the Sheets also came out 20 years ago this October. It's a meditation on living under and through war — both figuratively and literally as American soldiers were stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq — that, shocker, still rings true. To commemorate, Leo released the album's demos on Friday; the ideas were all there from the start, just roughly recorded. "Little Dawn," an intricately soulful-yet-nervy rocker, always felt like a letter to anyone listening as much as himself: "But on the days and nights it's hard to breathe and you can't believe you still walk the streets / Stretch out your weary hand to me, it's all right." He's touring for the Shake the Sheets anniversary this year, and I will shout this from as many rooftops as possible: Never miss an opportunity to see Ted Leo live; lately, he's found an invigorating new groove onstage that lifts me skyward.

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