When William Faulkner wrote "The past is never dead. It's not even past," he could have been describing the career of producer Madlib, whose SP-1200 serves as hip-hop's most audacious and inspired time machine. Where DJ Premier recruits the past to serve as the present's hype man, Madlib puts the past and present on equal footing, creating a running dialogue between the two that courses through his numerous projects. After breaking through with Lootpack's Soundpieces: Da Antidote!, securing his cult-hero status with Quasimoto's The Unseen, and establishing himself as a one-man jazz band with Yesterday's New Quintet's Angles Without Edges, Madlib kept a relatively low profile last year, dominating the terrific Peanut Butter Wolf's Jukebox 45's, but otherwise preparing for this year's creative onslaught. In 2003 alone, he's worked extensively on Wildchild's impressive solo debut, recorded an ambitious album with Declaime (Dudley Perkins' A Lil' Light), and begun collaborative projects with MF Doom and Jay Dee. But his most important work this year could turn out to be Shades Of Blue, a remarkable collaboration between Madlib and the Blue Note catalog that makes inspired use of the producer's formidable gifts as a remixer and jazz musician. A jazz album for hip-hop fans and a hip-hop album for jazz fans, Shades Of Blue combines a synthesis so seamless that its scratching and rap soundbites end up sounding like lost elements of the original recordings. At once reverent and personal, Shades Of Blue features remixes of Blue Note tracks, covers featuring a wide range of musicians who happen to reside in Madlib's body, and an original composition, "Funky Blue Note," that sounds at home amid the label's classics. Madlib affiliate Medaphoar takes center stage on the hip-hop mix of "Please Set Me At Ease," the only flat-out rap track here, and while it's tempting to imagine what Shades Of Blue would sound like if rap were pushed to the forefront more often, it's hard to quibble with an album that so consistently achieves a sort of blissed-out perfection. Re-imagining and remixing the Blue Note catalog is the opportunity of a lifetime for a multi-dimensional music lover like Madlib. On Shades Of Blue, he illustrates why he's uniquely well-suited for the gig.

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