HIP HOPPERS HAVE recently taken to remaking their personae in ways even more outlandish than usual for a music where identity is paramount. But while most rappers' aliases serve as amplifications of the more superhuman aspects of their creators' imaginations, Quasimoto, the a.k.a. of the Oxnard, California, group Lootpack's Madlib, achieves a more introspective end. Rather than following the lead of the RZA-as-Bobby Digital or of Kool Keith's closetful of barely distinguishable guises, Madlib tweaks most of his vocals into a genderless nether region, which interacts with his natural voice like a dialogue between the rational mind and the slippery subconscious.
This transformation recalls less Madlib's fellow rapping role-players than another black artist who has also been known to change his name around. In 1987 Prince recorded an unreleased, pseudonymous album titled Camille, his voice pitched up to an androgynous twitter and laid atop funk that sounded like it had seeped onto tape almost subliminally: tense synth lines, talking drum-machine beats, touches of Eastern psychedelia. (Much of the abandoned album would find its way onto Sign o' the Times.) When Madlib's helium-attenuated voice declares "Come on feet/Cruise for me" over a weirdly infectious rhythm track, the flashback to "Housequake" or "If I Was Your Girlfriend" is inevitable.
But voiceprint aside, what Quasimoto shares with Camille is its skittering, cartoonish quality. These raw, dreamily layered tracks, co-mixed by San Franciscans Kut Masta Kurt and Peanut Butter Wolf, sound the way Camille might have if it had been produced by another Prince--Prince Paul. The Unseen bursts with so much found material it's tempting to think Madlib changed his name to escape litigation, pilfering everything from Augustus Pablo to Melvin Van Peebles to enough jazz artists to fill a West Village loft, most of whom are name-checked on "Jazz Cats Pt. 1" (which rhymes "Albert Ayler" and "McCoy Tyner"). Trippy and nonchalant, these snippets dart through the mix like signposts seen from a moving train: impetuous asides, noise bursts, and oddball one-time-only loops. Quasimoto is lost in music, and The Unseen is so heady you'll want to lose yourself right alongside him.