erasing clouds

DJ Rels, Theme for a Broken Soul

reviewed by dave heaton

Is it even accurate to call Madlib a "hip-hop producer" anymore? He is one, and one of the most creative, but he's also been quietly taking on the history of African-American music in this country, from jazz to blues to soul, and filtering it through his personality into something fresh. His recent tributes to Stevie Wonder (Yesterdays New Quintet's Stevie) and Weldon Irvine (Monk Hughes & The Outer Realm's A Tribute to Brother Weldon) brilliantly reimagined music of the past as music of the future. And Theme for a Broken Soul, attributed to the enigmatic, desert-dwelling DJ Rels but actually another Madlib creation, is his latest effort at doing the same.

Theme for a Broken Soul's title is fitting, both because the album is framed as an uplifting work that'll move listeners in a brighter direction (as one song title puts it, toward "Universal Peace") and because the 11 instrumentals here sound like a newly broken form of soul music. I don't mean "broken" to be a negative, more like a description of how the music sounds. The music feels sliced-up, like rare 70s funk and soul tracks that got remixed by a U.K. dance DJ. This is soulful, groovy music, but it's also jittery where most soul music is smooth - Madlib takes mellow soul jams and shakes them up with intricate, quickly moving beats. In doing so, the music retains all the qualities you expect great soul music to have (those qualities that literally move your soul), but it also feels like an almost-robotic experiment in cutting and splicing. The fact that it can be the latter and still be the former is why Theme for a Broken Soul is so fulfilling. It's innovation that's also inherently comforting and uplifting; the ability to listen to the music on a daily basis, as a natural thing, isn't sacrificed for the sake of invention. And the songs are filled with more surprises than you expect to get from such accessible, even danceable music. As the album proceeds, the palette gets broader while the music gets even funkier, as if it's a party that just keeps getting hotter as the night goes on.

Stevie and Brother Weldon weren't originally meant to be released (reportedly Madlib made them for friends and had to be convinced to give them proper release), and Theme for a Broken Soul was released under a pseudonym, but taken together they form for me some of the most interesting and innovative music released in any genre this year. Madlib casually releases music that's so much more compelling than crates full of hyped-up and overstocked next-big-things. He's also the rare musician who's attuned to the past but isn't too intimidated to mess around with it. By playing with the past he writes an exciting new future, and Theme for a Broken Soul is another great example of that.


Issue 26, September 2004

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