Originally published in LiP Magazine. www.lipmagazine.org
A friend says Madvillain registers higher on his "blackdar" -meaning his radar screen for blackness- than MF Doom's two most recent albums, Take Me To Your Leader and Vaudeville Villain. It's difficult to say exactly where this black vibe is coming from, but it seems to resonate more in Madlib's production than in MF Doom's lyrics. Madlib, after all, is one of those producers whose raison d'etre is to create the perfect mixed-marriage of jazz and hip hop, and in so doing, give the latter a sense of rootedness in the pantheon of black music. Where he failed with last year's dribbling Shades of Blue -which amounted to nothing more than a series of jazz standards filched from the crates of Blue Note, and set to bland 4/4 beats- he succeeds in Madvillain, whose tracks sound out-there enough to enhance MF Doom's strange, boggy tones.
This album works because Madlib ditches the old standby in favor of something more hybrid and bizarre: he hearkens back to Quasimoto's The Unseen, which created a buzz in 2000, and combines it with a nascent acid jazz sensibility. At the same time, Madlib busts out with obscure and hilarious samples -the best is an instructional recording from the 60's or 70's, designed to prevent children from smoking marijuana- which, no doubt, will mollify fans of last year's Take Me To Your Leader (which Doom released under the alias King Geedorah, honoring the monster from a Japanese cult flick). By deftly mixing synths and studio effects, Madlib forms an apt blueprint for Doom to build his sound; moreover, the producer shows that he can push himself to new levels, creatively, while staying attuned to MF Doom's distinctive lyrical style.
To his credit, MF Doom has always worked with producers who effectively convey, and even amplify, the different characters that he invents to for each of his albums. Thus, Doom's cabal of producers on Take Me To Your Leader rendered the album cartoony and sample-driven (in fact, it's often dubbed "a producer's album"), which suited the King Geedorah character proper -Geedorah is, after all, the giant lizard who battles Godzilla. Similarly, the production team of Vaudeville Villain -which includes names you've probably never heard before, like King Honey and Max Bill- imbued Doom's raps with noir-ish, New Yorky sounds that seemed apropos for Viktor Vaughan, the Marvel comic villain who spent most of his career battling the Fantastic Four.
Whether these collaborations are merely fortuitous, or indicative of Doom's unique ability to find kindred spirits, and make love connections (in the context of music, that is), they set his albums apart from other artists of the same verbal caliber. Indeed, Doom has never had the misfortune of either totally outpacing his producers, or creating an album wherein the rhymes and beats are awkwardly or insensibly paired. (Such was the pitfall of Canibus's collaboration with Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind, in which the mismatching of Stoupe's tracks and Canibus's lyrics prevented Rip the Jacker from being a really great album).
What's still most appealing about MF Doom is his ability, not only to crib themes and aliases from trash culture, but to completely occupy every character he selects. In that sense, his proper analogue might be the rapper Kool Keith, whose generally wacked-out sensibility and penchant for character swapping helped him garner a cult fanbase that would otherwise gravitate to fantasy shows like Star Trek or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. With MF Doom, the fantasy aspect is even more prevalent: not only is he appropriately gloomy and doomy; he's the most convincingly weird emcee in contemporary hip hop. The Freudian association, stream-of-consciousness style of Doom's lyrics reaches levels of profundity that surpass the literal (in "Accordion" he says, offhandedly, "don't touch the mic, it's got AIDS on it"). At the same time, you often get the sense that Doom is using his various personae to conceal -or maybe displace- a darker, perhaps sadder, inner-monologue. Fantasy shows are, after all, a way for popular culture to talk to itself about real issues, in the safer context of an altered universe -perhaps MF Doom is using the same technique, but on a personal level.
And granted, that hint of a darker, more inward-looking villain, lurking beneath the spangled pandemonium of Madvillain, is the real romance of MF Doom. (Rachel Swan)