Hailing from New York, Malik Ameer and The Madmen’s 2007 EP The Roseline is imbued with the city’s underground scene; however, this is more than simply East Coast hip-hop, with influences ranging from smooth jazz to gospel soul. On first listening the album feels unwieldy, reveling in its own experimentation; however, repeated listening begins to unify the work; it is a deeper aesthetic that binds the tracks rather than a superficial sound. Whilst this may come across initially as clumsy, it is, in fact, a far more exciting approach to music, with a sense of improvisation that does not usually exist within this genre.
Ameer’s lyrics and vocals give the album its raw, urban feel – an accomplished poet in his own right, there is a more nuanced appreciation of vocal sound and the interplay of syllabic structures on show during The Roseline. It is the sense of chance that makes this work so exciting. The album opens with In the Smashan, a five-minute exploration of city life that sets the tone for the rest of the work. With its reference to the ceremonial Hindu cremation ground (smashan), The Madmen draw us into urban New York – an unpredictable environment and one where Ameer describes ‘seeing death as my only escape’. And yet, it is not only through death that Ameer explores outside of New York; art, mythology and history are as much a part of the construction of this album as the music itself: in Jivatma Sings there is further reference to Hinduism, whilst Ancestral Portraits introduces Caribbean and African percussion influences.
One way to describe the musical environment of the album would be to compare the aesthetic with the experimental works of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. That is not to say that the sound is at all similar, but the philosophy behind the music has a similar weight of unprocessed, raw expression. The gospel Church moans that introduce In the Smashan produce this effect, appearing to issue from the depths of the soul rather than a predefined score. However, this reliance on chance musical encounter is fittingly juxtaposed in Embrace Such Awe with sampled loops from a film script – it is a polyglossia, with Ameer’s voice competing with and complementing a range of sources.
There is also a sophisticated sense of humour on show. Thus Danced Zarathustra opens with the line ‘Way down from the mountain tops I met him on his way’ – instantly engaging Nietzsche’s philosophical text in a one-way dialogue. However, the joke is not merely philosophical but melodic, with the languid pace of the track in comic juxtaposition to Strauss’s famous musical interpretation of his fellow German’s writing.
The Roseline is by no means perfect, but that is its enduring charm. The Madmen are not attempting to create a radio album, but instead to explore the boundaries of music and genre. The album is worth owning for the Church moans on In the Smashan and the jazz piano on Jivatma Sings; however, listening to the work as a whole allows a greater appreciation of the underpinning motivation behind each track.
W. J. Humphries