With such an august background in both hip-hop and jazz, then, a remix/remake album of standards from the revered jazz label Blue Note should be right up Madlib's alley, right? Well, sort of. The concept is airtight. Perhaps a little too airtight; the entire exercise comes off as a bit contrived, even antiseptic. Take Shades of Blue's second track, "Slim's Return." The Gene Harris jazz-funk classic is culled, as is most of this raw material, from Blue Note's late-'60s/early-'70s Rare Groove era. Madlib kicks out a thick beat underneath the horns and bass, and spruces it all up with the vibraphone and a few well-placed flicks of the 1200s. But by the end of the song, he resorts to spastically -- and annoyingly -- panning back and forth between the two speakers like a little kid going knob-happy on his dad's hi-fi. A stereophonic sound spectacular, it ain't.
When he's not remixing, Madlib just flat-out covers the originals, as is the case with his lush, wraith-like rendition of Reuben Wilson's "Stormy." Playing and piecing together every instrument is an impressive feat, for sure, but his use of fictitious band names and musician lineups starts to get irksome after a while. Yesterday's New Quintet is more than enough to convey the punch line, but Madlib feels the need to throw in credits for other imaginary outfits, such as "Sound Direction" and -- take a breath -- "Morgan Adams Quartet Plus Two, featuring Malcolm Catto."
However, the most glaring excess of Shades is its between-song, spoken-word blurbs. At the beginning of "Distant Land," a revamp of the phantasmal Donald Byrd tune, there's a phoned-in shout-out from the one and only Lou Donaldson. The sax legend over-enunciates Madlib's name as if he has no idea who the rapper even is and he's just reading the word off a card someone stuck in front of him. (Puzzlingly, Donaldson's work isn't even represented anywhere on the disc.) Even worse is the 42-second "Blue Note Interlude," in which an embarrassingly trite history lesson of the record label is recited like a third-grade book report. As dumb as "Interlude" is, Madlib then feels the need to smear the whole track with more of his epileptic stereo panning. If ever an album was made not to be listened to with headphones, this is it.
Still, despite the heavy-handedness and sometimes tedious self-indulgence, Shades of Blue houses some incredibly gorgeous music. The most effective cut here is "Please Set Me at Ease," which it thankfully does: Bobbi Humphrey's taffy-jazz original is cut up into synthesized chunks that are then layered over each other with a stuttering, funky syncopation. But the real reason this song excels is the inclusion of a deft, breezy freestyle by Medaphoar; as the only emceed cut on the album, "Please" winds up sounding like an updated version of the sunny, Rare Groove-raiding hip-hop that acts such as A Tribe Called Quest, US3 and Gang Starr first peddled way back in the early '90s. A throwback to a throwback? Unfortunately, for all of Madlib's past breakthroughs and exploits, that's about as innovative as Shades of Blue gets.