The Lowdown: It appears that Madlib has a slightly rough trade affinity for rappers more macho than him. The introverted super producer made magic in 2019 with his temperamental opposite: Freddie Gibbs. Buttressed by the most exciting production of his career, Gibbs sounded reborn, turning gangsta cliches on their head to create something piquant and beautiful. You couldn’t tell that he was still healing from a painful wrongful rape accusation.
If your spidey sense told you that The Professionals would fall well short of Bandana, congratulations. Madlib’s younger brother, Oh No, is funny and assertive — a maelstrom of Gibbs-like rage. But neither he nor Madlib are operating at peak capacity. Apart from two isolated brushes with the unfamiliar — the trap-like “Payday” and the analog funk of “Give N Take” — The Professionals doesn’t convey that Madlib is in the mood to challenge himself.
The Good: Oh No’s nonthreatening exterior belies a tart wit. To quote the Kay-Gees record sampled on “Timeless Treasure”, time is running out for Oh No to grow up; he’s 40 years old and still a binge-gaming, blunt-chiefing couch potato. But don’t tell him that. This puer aeternus will lash your skin off — or break your spleen, if “CDP Smackdown” is to be taken at his word.
As if to prove his well-roundedness, Oh No takes a break from detonating verbal bombs on the military-themed storytelling track “Dishonored Valor”. Elsewhere on The Professionals, he asks that rampant price gouging in the pharmaceutical industry be dealt with. He’s a better insult comic than he is a polemicist, but either way, Oh No’s rapping is a joy. And he’s found the right counterbalance in his brother, a loopy and pacifistic dreamer.
The Bad: Blink and you’ll miss Oh No’s Freudian slip on “Away Too Long”. He makes mention of Nice & Smooth’s “No Delayin’”, which is fitting because this album could use a kick in the ass. There’s nothing decipherably wrong with Madlb’s sample-heavy beats — the more heroines of 1970s soul that get to cameo from beyond the grave the merrier as far as we’re concerned — but none stand out (except for the muggy blaxploitation swagger of “Dishonored Valor”). Once you’ve heard a Professionals song, you’ve heard the album: percolating percussion, sci-fi fanfare, and repurposed movie dialogue.
One positive but bittersweet takeaway from The Professionals is Detroit rapper Elzhi’s readiness for prime time. Elzhi has an overactive imagination that frequently gets him into trouble, but judging by how perfectly he stays in the pocket of “Superheroes”, he could make a killer album under Madlib’s tutelage.
The Verdict: Where is the seething, primordial urgency of Bandana? The Professionals sounds like two brothers frittering their afternoon away in a dank studio, which would be fine if we hadn’t come to expect a much greater degree of adventurism from Madlib in particular. Of course, there are no hard-and-fast rules stipulating that Madlib has to up the ante with each subsequent album, and The Professionals is very good. It’s certainly professional. But unlike Bandana, it won’t blow your hair back.
Essential Tracks: “Dishonored Valor”, “Superhumans”, and “Timeless Treasure”