Ever since 2005’s DangerDoom release, or perhaps more appropriately the Doomposter allegations, once-prolific MF DOOM has felt like an artist once again content to slink around in the shadows. The excellent (if divisive) Born Like This released in 2009, but otherwise most of DOOM’s notable releases have been relegated to rumor and hearsay: a sequel to Madvillainy, the Ghostface-collaboration LP Swift & Changeable, or the Masta Ace album with DOOM production that turned out to be Ace discovering DOOM’s Special Herbs beat series from the early 2000s and picking out his favorite instrumentals. It’s been a half decade that’s felt appropriately mired in fan fantasy considering DOOM’s obsession with comic book storylines, but coupled with rumors of alcoholism having an increasing affect on his vocal performances and this summer’s revelation that a return trip to his birth country of the United Kingdom resulted in his being sequestered there with a non-existent Visa, it’s been increasingly acceptable to believe DOOM might just be an icon of underground hip-hop’s renaissance lost to the subtleties of life outside a recording studio.
Enter Jneiro Jarel, aka Dr. Who Dat?, a Philadelphia producer by way of Brooklyn whose teaming with DOOM made headlines last year and, unlike all DOOM’s other projects, has actually come to see the light of day. While this project could be approached with trepidation by those who are unaware of Jarel’s pedigree (he may not be as prolific as Madlib or J Dilla, but he certainly carries their torches with each release) or simply bitter it exists while others don’t, Keys to the Kuffs has been an increasingly enjoyable listen as the weeks have gone by. Initially, DOOM does not feel like he’s in his usual zone—if you felt like his drawls and slurs on Born Like This distracted from its message, Keys to the Kuffs will certainly be more jarring. And while DOOM’s typical playful language still abounds, this time it feels decidedly more abstract, more words sounding similar for the sake of his knowing they would. It’s not fair to say that you can’t expect substance from Keys to the Kuffs, but if you’re not aware of the references within his couplet-sized jewels this album threatens to fly over the heads of many by feeling purely non sequitur.
While much of Keys to the Kuffs is found basking in the immediate joys of stringing up words and making rhymes out of jokes and innuendos, there are times where the disc has more evident purpose. Interestingly, two of these moments don’t have any DOOM on them at all; “Borin’ Convo” arrives in the middle of the album with a solo rap from, presumably, Jneiro Jarel, a guy who’s not exactly known for dropping 16s yet delivers one of the album’s more invigorated moments, if only because his vocal provides a refreshing contrast to DOOM’s slobbery drawls. Khujo Goodie, who’d previously cut a similar collaboration LP with Jarel as Willie Isz, appears on the track called “STILL KAPS” (a reference, but apparently not sequel to, Madvillain’s “ALL CAPS”) and spends just over a minute gracing listeners’ ears with the Goodie Mob’s classic blend of conscious and pimpin’. There are also features from Damon Albarn (slipping past almost completely unnoticeable) and Beth Gibbons, whose ghostly vocals feel more like GonjaSufi’s haunting future-folk than the Portishead crooner.
The best is saved for last with “Wash Your Hands”, as DOOM displays the sort of humor that made his early-2000s run feel so vital. Sonically, Jarel’s beat feels like a cross between an adult swim. title card instrumental and a NIcki Minaj minimal/maximal screwball. And DOOM approaches the beat just right, skewering the pop world’s infatuation with clubs and public unprotected sex all while warning listeners against the prevalence of AIDS through not-so-subtle context clues. It’s a peak we don’t see often on Keys to the Kuffs, though “Winter Blues” flirts with greatness - it easily feels like the most mysterious of DOOM’s tracks, an ode to brown skin that’s awfully melancholy, anchored by a recording of a woman explaining exactly how important melanin is to every human being. DOOM may own the highlights here, but through found sample segues like that, the tracks which have nothing to do with DOOM at all (“‘Bout the Shoes” is a Boston Fielder track and “Viberian Sun, Pt. 2” is a sequel to an instrumental from Jarel’s Shape of Broad Minds project) and the way many of the tracks are just more immediately ear-catching because of Jarel’s Low End Theory style density, JJ DOOM feels like more of a Jarel project that just so happens to have DOOM atop the majority of it.
Keys to the Kuffs is often a deeply bleak record, but it’s also one that becomes more and more enjoyable as its quirks sink in, a trademark of both artists. It’s certainly a niche album, but one that will find endless replay value for those who have been following both artists from their beginnings and have learned to look past - or never learned how to see - the things critics detract from them. Perhaps it’s not the DOOM-related album listeners have been pleading for the past four years, nor as focused a listen as his last effort, but Jarel’s production efforts make it a must-try for hip-hop fans on their own and rhymes from DOOM, well, we all should know by now that even if they’re mostly just icing it’s still highly addictive, delicious icing with plenty of substance for those with the properly tuned taste buds.