Review Summary: Strong Arm Steady get pushed out of the way by Madlib, which basically means this is the best thing that's ever happened to them.
Madlib, after years of hiding, has finally come to his senses. After years of adapting a Prince Paul-esqe way of producing beats, and crafting soundscapes for New Yorkers like MF Doom and Detroiters like Guilty Simpson, he’s come to the conclusion that he’s from the east coast. As a result, he’s decidedly made a record with one group known amongst his fellow Californians in the underground, Strong Arm Steady. Although Strong Arm are hardly the essence of California, they are certainly more laid back than any other artist Madlib has produced for, and because of that, In Search of Stoney Jackson
is a bit different than anything else Madlib has done.
Indeed, rather than lo fi jazz samples and trippy atmospheres, In Search of Stoney Jackson
utilizes mellow soul and R&b samples, and generally creates a laid back, smooth sound for the two MC’s of Strong Arm Steady to rap over. Most of the short interludes are some of the same space age madness that generally details his music, but it interweaves perfectly with the groove-laced backdrop that characterizes the album. Madlib is a master of his craft though, including highlight tracks like the funky guitar-driven “Bark Like A Dog”, the Dilla-esqe organ soul of “Best of Times”, or the out-of-left-field Eastern movement of “Questions” (which absolutely drips of Madlib’s personality), but even with that, makes the album a soundscape just like his other material.
Amongst this funk/soul of In Search of Stoney Jackson
, we see that Madlib seems to outshine his collaborators Strong Arm Steady. Strong Arm Steady, although they consist of three members, sees only two truly working on the record. Phil Da Agony is easily the better rapper of the two in pure technicality, adopting a Ghostface-esqe manner of rapping, almost completely stream of consciousness and on-the-spot. However, rather than the immaculate wordplay Ghost displays, Phil goes for a more straight forward bravado-full attack on the mic, with the occasionally punchy wordplay mixed in for good measure. Krondon is the second MC of the group, and although his wordplay is far lacking by comparison to Phil, his gravelly voice and harsh gripping of the microphone gives him more of a persona and helps builds with the music.
Phil and Krondon sound fairly uncomfortable together, but to cover it up, In Search of Stoney Jackson
is packed to the brim with guests. Most of these guests stand as a wedge between Krondon and Phil to make them appear to be working together, but there is the occasional impressive verse. Phonte of the usually boring Little Brother shines on “Best Of Times”, while Talib Kweli’s rapid fire verse as usual absolutely kills the competition on “Get Started”. The best verse of the album, however goes to the streetisms of Guilty Simpson on “Needle In The Haystack”, who mixes both of the good qualities of the members of Strong Arm Steady and makes it his own, attaining both an absolutely real voice and punchy lyrics (“This is where we separate the grizzlies from the Teddy Ruxpins”).
That disappointment resonating from the main attraction quickly boils over, as the guests and Madlib’s tasteful samples give In Search of Stoney Jackson
a off-the-cuff, mixtape-ish feeling that makes it truly a fun listen. Madlib still proves he’s the master of his terrain, and certain guests slay their hosts, but for the most part, it’s a mix of 90s nostalgia and the new kids, and fits together perfectly.