A decade later, the villain man still never runs with krills in his hand
It’s funny how low-concept, well, high-concept rappers are; for all their limited-edition comic books and legendary guests, Czarface are just selling old-fashioned boom-bap and rhymes.
Two decades ago, you could say MF Doom first wrote the playbook for this career path, though Wu-Tang obviously played a part. Once known as KMD’s Zev Love X, Daniel Dumile rebirthed himself as a hip-hop supervillain with those dialogue snatches, cartoon samples (literally Scooby-Doo on his debut) and beats not much less dusty than the ones Jurassic 5 and DJ Shadow were toying with. The rhymes were significantly tricky for throwback riddlin’, but otherwise not deeper than the Beastie Boys’ bull sessions. They did have a lot more flow, however, guided by Doom’s trusty phlegm.
Five years after this persona debuted, he reached the greatest success of his life with legendary beatsman Madlib on Madvillainy, but the only true twist was the stoned sense of editing, fragmented splices of song that abruptly changed course when they felt like. It recast the rap album itself as a goofy highlight reel. Doom’s been content with that formula ever since, teaming up with producers big (Danger Mouse at his hottest for The Mouse and the Mask) and small (Jneiro Jarel, for Keys to the Kuffs), eventually releasing far more collaborations than solo bids. Maybe it’s because of this unchanged blueprint that Doom became less of a cause celebre than his team-ups but those solo records held their own: the meaty, literal word salad Mm…Food, and the least conceptual record of his career, Born Like This, which just turned ten. It’s actually Dumile’s masterpiece.
VIDEO: MF Doom – Gazzillion Ear
It’s not that Doom never experimented; he and Madlib took the least banging sample possible — a sighing accordion — and made it the lead “Accordion” on consensus champ Madvillainy (even Clipse’s own leadoff “Momma, I’m Sorry” two years later made the accordion far more menacing). And Born Like This starts off with another unpredictable opener, “Gazillion Ear,” which contains a beat skillfully concealed inside another beat; within the same song we can hear the box opened to play with the other and then sealed back up again before it ends. But for the most part Doom’s third full-length under his “real” name is a triumph of familiar tools: exultantly rapped boom-bap fragments that sound like they just rolled off his tongue, broken up by crucial guest contributions known (Raekwon and Ghostface share one excellent turn apiece) and unknown (the spunky Empress Starhh verse “Still Dope”). De La Soul’s Posdnous contributes a quick, disintegrating Auto-Tune cameo on “Supervillainz” as “P-Pain.” Samples well-acquainted with heads (ESG’s sirenlike “UFO,” the late Dilla via Raymond Scott’s burbling “Lightworks”) pop up between the regal funk of “Ballskin” and the middle-Eastern pretensions of “Gazillion Ear.” And obviously there’s bits of cartoon and B-movie kitsch, even a B-movie song, perhaps the only controversial thing in Doom’s extensive oeuvre.
Like Eminem’s “Criminal” nine years prior, “Batty Boys” attempts to turn homophobia into art, starring with its title, a Jamaican slur. The reason it makes a case for itself is because Doom, unlike most rappers, especially Eminem, is wearing a literal mask. By pretending he’s a supervillain, it’s somewhat of a hoot listening to Doom in kayfabe teasing spandex-bulgers like Batman and Robin about The Obvious; it’s essentially a first-person Ambiguously Gay Duo sketch. And it’s a shame Doom had to throw a dialogue sample with a slur into it, because the sheer originality (and slapstick) of the concept almost gives it a distinction from the cruel reality that actually befalls LGBT people; just last week Brunei made gay sex punishable via death by stoning. In 2019.
But aside from the dated homophobia (which pops up on “Supervillainz” and surely others), Born Like This is also Doom’s most political work since KMD’s Black Bastards, with the deepest baritone, darkest humor (“Once sold an inbred skinhead a nigger joke / Plus a brand-new chrome smoker with the triggers broke”), and most emotional panorama of sonics in the man’s career, almost certainly the influence of frequent collaborator Ghostface. “Absolutely” reflects on corrupt authority, and “That’s That” does squeeze “civil liberties” in before “little titties,” riddle me” and “rectal hysterectomy” (the song also ends with some brief Tony Starks-style singing, in this case Doom’s lounge act of the Jackson 5). It’s not that a court jester suddenly spoke truth to power, it’s that he expanded his lyrically dense palate of moods and feelings just as impressively as he opened up his sonic spectrum.
Just as Ghostface loyals are unlikely to switch allegiances from the double-encrypted Supreme Clientele to the reflective emo-noir of Fishscale, Madvillainy resin-scrapers probably won’t anoint Born Like This their new opus of choice. But it deserves higher appreciation for doing more than just staying on top. This is where Doom refined his own sound into something more lucid, cinematic, and clever all in one punch. You could even say meaningful.