I first became aware of MF Doom at the turn of the last century, when his independently released Operation: Doomsday first appeared in Bay Area record stores. It caught my eye because of the Jack Kirby homage/swipe that forms the backbone of Doom’s career: the image of Marvel Comics archvillain Dr. Doom rocking the mic. I wondered then, and I still wonder now, how in the hell he managed to get away with that without being sued by the erstwhile House of Ideas—and my amazement continued unabated as Operation: Doomsday was subsequently re-released to wider acclaim in 2001, and as Doom continuously adhered to the outlandish conceit through a series of blisteringly hot underground releases. His Special Herbs series doesn’t just swipe Doom’s image and attitude, but actual panels from Lee & Kirby’s long Fantastic Four run adorn the album covers. I’d like to meet his lawyers.
MF Doom’s career is built on two of the most essential elements of hip-hop: appropriation and masquerade. DJs and producers take bits and pieces from all over the musical spectrum to construct brand new compositions, and MCs adopt new identities in order to transcend the mundane realties of everyday life. Mild-mannered and asthmatic Sean Carter transforms himself by sheer force of will into the kingpin of worldwide hip-hop, Jay-Z. (Even more amazingly, before his premature retirement Jay-Z managed the near impossible trick of turning Jay-Z back into Sean Carter.) MF Doom took these two tenets of postmodern hip-hop and flips one step further by appropriating an entire preexisting (albeit fictional) identity.
He even comes with his own secret identity and mysterious origin. But it doesn’t involve a mystical Gypsy heritage and a long-standing rivalry with Reed Richards. MF Doom began his career as Zev Love X—AKA Daniel Dumile—one half of the obscure but fondly remembered rap duo KMD. Dumile’s brother—the other half of KMD—DJ Subroc, died in a 1994 car accident. After Elektra subsequently quashed KMD’s controversial second album, Black Bastards, Dumile laid low for three years before returning to the underground scene in 1997 as the metal-faced marauder, MF Doom. The trauma of his brother’s death and the disillusionment stemming from his treatment at the hands of the major-label machinery combined to create MF Doom, a shadowy figure of menace and mystery, an avatar of uncompromising independence and laconic lyrical mastery.
And what’s a supervillain without a supervillain team-up? But the Sub-Mariner is nowhere in sight: Madvillainy chronicles the fateful meeting of Doom and fellow underground producer/MC Madlib. It’s a match made in heaven. In Madlib, the erstwhile Latverian dictator has found the one figure in all of hip-hop who could possibly hope to compete with him on the grounds of both prodigious output and alternative identities. Whereas Doom, in addition to his original incarnation as Zev Love X, has also recorded as King Geedorah and Vikter Vaughn, Madlib has recorded as a member of the Lootpack, in conjunction with Jay Dee under the hybrid alias Jaylib, and by himself as Quasimoto. He has even, under the auspices of the facetious Yesterday’s New Quintet, formed an entire fake band wherein he possesses not one but five alternate identities. (He’s also recorded as himself, most notably on the recent Shades of Blue album, wherein Madlib tackled Blue Note’s fabled jazz catalog, with result equally stunning and stunted.) Madvillainy is one Kool Keith cameo away from being eligible for a group-rate trip to Disneyworld.
On paper, Madvillainy makes perfect sense, and the collaboration succeeds wonderfully in highlighting each artist’s particular strengths. The division of labor is simple. Whereas in the past MF Doom has done most of his own producing, and Madlib has been no stranger to the mic himself, these two polymaths wisely decided to stick to one discipline each. Madlib provides the beats, and Doom spits the rhymes. The problem with Madvillainy, if it can even be termed a problem, is that Doom and Madlib just have too many ideas.
Yeah, I know: wouldn’t it be nice if more members of the hip-hop nation had problems like these? But the fact remains that both of these men have more ideas than one single conventional alias can contain, and together they have so many ideas that the album can barely contain them. Most songs clock in at around just under two minutes or so, and that makes for an extremely frustrating listening experience. The songs barely remain for long enough to establish a groove and a theme—by the time you’re to the point where most rap songs would hit the first chorus, Madlib has already slid a new beat into the mix and the album is off and running into new territory before you can get your bearings. Most full-length hip-hop LPs outlast their welcome, but Madvillainy is frustratingly short.
The album kicks off with the one-two punch of “Accordion” and “Meat Grinder.” The former kicks things off with a suitably elegiac minor key accordion riff (sampled from Mush Records mainstay Daedelus) playing softly in the background, over a menacingly minimalistic crunk bass-and-snare pattern. “Meat Grinder” is the first of many songs with a false start, beginning with what sounds like thirty seconds spliced off Ghostface’s Supreme Clientele ... until the warped gremlin voice comes in to remind you that “the dog is under the bed.” After the bizarre fake-out, Doom begins with one of those verses whack MCs will be quoting for years to come:
“Trippin’ off the beat-kinda/
Drippin’ off the meat grinder/
Heat niner, pimpin’/
Strippin’ soft sweet minor/
China was a neat signer/
Trouble with the script/
Digits double dipped, bubble
lipped, subtle lisp/
It’s a perfect example of the type of lyric at which Doom excels. It’s a tongue twister, with multiple contrasting internal rhymes and almost nonsensical verses jammed together in a way that almost sounds silly but doesn’t. If language is arbitrary, then many of Doom’s verses exploit the essence of words stripped of meaning, random conglomerations of syllables assembled in an order that only makes sense from a rhythmical standpoint. Sometimes Doom is almost comically obtuse, but his endearingly menacing drawl remains his saving grace.
There’s an interlude called “Bistro” that can’t help but remind you of Biggie’s “Juicy”. I never quite noticed just how much Doom, with his almost-monotone rasp sounds like the late Notorious B.I.G. “Rainbows” is one of the album’s more bizarre tunes, with a stutter-spliced horn sample set under some of Doom’s more oddly romantic verses: “He drinks draino / Rat but/ She winks rainbows.” It’s enough to make you think the metal-masked arch-fiend either has a soft romantic underbelly or a few serious screws loose.
While Madlib’s beats make the album a sonic feast, there’s no doubt that Doom’s aesthetic remains dominant. The constant barrage of comic book dialogue samples and the loping, off-kilter jazz loops bring to mind the RZA’s best spook-fests. “Shadows of Tomorrow” is perhaps the album’s strongest beat, with multiple off-kilter rhythmic patterns colliding, sliding and contrasting against each other to make an improbable avant-garde club-banger. “Strange Ways” is perhaps the catchiest song on the album, with an odd unidentified soft-rock sample spliced under Doom’s growl. It’s the skipping-record melodic hook that makes it so unusual: it’s that rare hip-hop song with a violin breakdown.
The instrumental “Supervillain Theme” could be a DJ Shadow b-side, complete with trilling ‘70s guitar samples and the hard-rock drum breaks. But “All Caps” is the album’s climax, with deceptively cheerful jazz samples contrasted against an uncharacteristically legible rhyme from Doom. “Just remember”, he reminds you, “ALL CAPS when you spell the man name.”
The next-to-last track, “Great Day Today”, is the most personal statement on a stridently abstruse album. “Never really mattered too much to me / That I was just too damn old to MC ,” he begins, and for the first time you catch a glimpse, however fleeting, of the man behind the iron mask. In a day and age when rapping is most often compared to athletics, Doom reminds us that rapping is in fact an art. There’s no reason you have to stop rapping just because you get older. In discussing his recent retirement Jay-Z often cited the example of Michael Jordan. As much as I respect Jay-Z, it seemed a particularly inapt metaphor: what if Miles Davis had quit playing the trumpet simply because he was getting older? Rapping is an art, and there’s no reason why the art can’t change with the artist to reflect growing and shifting perspectives and priorities. MF Doom has already beaten the curve, defying the conventional rules of career trajectory in as traditionally youth-obsessed field—and he shows every indication of staying the course for the rest of his life.
Madvillainy is a jewel-encrusted treasure of an album. It’s only 45 minutes long but there’s more than enough here to please the most jaded audiophile. You can spend hours poring over the lyric sheet and attempting to grok Doom’s infinitely dense verbiage, or you can ignore the words and just groove to the endlessly pleasing thrill of the skewered analog that pops and hisses throughout the album like a living, breathing organism.
It is very rare to see pop musicians featured in the pages of The New Yorker—I’ve been a subscriber for a long time and in the past few years I can only remember seeing significant articles on Radiohead, Bjork, and Jay-Z. The fact that Madvillainy earned a multi-page examination (in the April 12th issue) proves that MF Doom and Madlib have succeeded in striking a nerve not merely in the limited world of indie hip-hop but in the realms of greater pop culture. The review, by Sasha Frere-Jones, does a wonderful job of illustrating to a more generalized audience just why the Madvillain project is so damned compelling at this place and time in pop history. He ends the article with a simple reiteration of Madvillainy—and hip-hop in general’s—unspoken thesis: “Every sound can make a song. All words make sense.” Every sound can be appropriated, and any word you can imagine can be rhymed. As in the general world of electronic music, the specific genre of hip-hop is based on the principles of sonic malleability. MF Doom and Madlib have every intention of stretching this malleability as far as it will go.