9. JJ DOOM - Key To The Kuffs (2012)
"Not to interrupt / But anybody else notice time speeding up?" (from "Banished")
In music, it's so rare when old talent doesn't die hard, when an artist matures fruitfully -- few things are more beautiful than hearing a wealth of experience inflect the work of a professional. And Key To The Kuffs, at the very least, stands up as an album. It's conceptually sound (ostensibly about DOOM's experiences having relocated to London for the past two years) and doesn't make the mistake of relying too heavily on old tricks.
But in the arena of contemporary music, the JJ DOOM project comes down decisively on the side of electronic wizardry -- beat-mavenism and sample composition -- not rap. DOOM knows how to graft himself onto an adept and idiosyncratic producer like Jneiro Janal, but he's vocally heavier and less tonally sensitive, as on 2009's Born Like This.
Though Janel is far from a novice, his moves on Key To The Kuffs recall Flying Lotus's warning about "kids who started making beats six months ago, thinking they can get on stage because their drums are off," delivered during an interview two years ago. Janel employs DOOM's drum stutters, off-time breaks, and sample collages, but they don't necessarily deliver the hyperparodic comedy or handcrafted warmth they might in DOOM's hands.
The best moments on the album are songs like "Rhymin' Slang," where Janel and DOOM make an effort to sound like neither of their past projects, to great effect. Hearing DOOM over a pseudo-Calypso beat during "Wash Your Hands" will give new faith to anyone who thought the man would never be able to leave the old school.
Last year in the U.K., Carol Morley released Dreams Of A Life, a documentary about a woman who died in her North London apartment and was not found for three years. No one came looking. Police found her skeleton amongst Christmas presents yet to be wrapped.
The film’s press materials and many of its critics posit it as an urban dweller’s caveat — “Would anyone miss you?” — reminding us of the suffocating isolation possible even in a dense, social capital like London. But the talk surrounding the story barely hints at its most haunting detail: The television was on. For three years it chirped away, as programming changed and major news broke and Joyce Vincent rotted.
What unfurled and accumulated in that room — years of sound and light, records of London and what London was watching — that is the only possible analogue to the nightmarish cultural overflow of DOOM’s music. Every album breathes with a distinct personality, each a shapeshifting assemblage of personage and programming that sounds more like a kind of miraculous hyperlinked sound collage than rap.
A London-born recluse himself, Daniel Dumile’s path led him through New York and Atlanta — two rap meccas — from near-homelessness to the shelter of a metal mask. Along the way, he seemed to absorb everything around him. Having grown out of the most prolific period in rap music to date, starting roughly in the mid- to late-1980s, he experienced firsthand the sparkling wave of young, intelligent New Yorkers with politics that didn’t overwhelm the soul of party music. He would collect and later reuse audio from cartoons, monster movies, news bulletins, and countless other sources. After a record label dispute and the death of his brother Subroc, killed crossing the Long Island Expressway, DOOM disappeared, resurfacing years later with a stocking over his head, and then always the mask. Part gladiator, part The Fantastic Four’s Dr. Doom, it became a barrier, a platform for reinvention, a shield from the industry that he claims badly deformed him.
His lyrical feats go unmatched for sheer idiosyncrasy and insight; beyond rap enthusiasts, many of his strongest supporters are (perhaps unsurprisingly) writers and jazzheads. DOOM may not be the first rapper you’d throw on at a party, but he’s definitely the only one to be “the supervillain cooler than a million / I’ll be chillin’ / still quick to slice squares like Sicilians.” His references come from just about everywhere, but he prefers street language, old sayings, and things you can purchase at a bodega.
A master of “the microphone, beats, or the wheels of steel,” he has constantly swapped out his tools and collaborators, avoiding revision and instead choosing reinvention. Beginning with his brother, he has worked with the entire spectrum of the rap universe, with the exception of any true “luxury” rapper. After KMD, he moved into totally different territory, often producing and rapping alongside members of the mysterious collective M.I.C. (Monsta Island Czars), crafting beats that favored oddly chopped samples, psychotically left-field source material, or simply unpleasant sounds. He became MF Doom, then MF DOOM, then simply DOOM, with a host of aliases along the way.
And the samples themselves — they’re almost more indicative of a DOOM song than DOOM’s voice. They come from everywhere. You might suddenly recognize a “Kon Karne” background voice on a Frank Zappa record. And there’s an Anita Baker piano riff. You’ll find yourself falling asleep to a Godzilla movie, or was it Take Me To Your Leader?
It used to be that stumbling upon DOOM’s samples was your only experience of him outside his music, but these days he’s everywhere. Just after the release of JJ DOOM, at a moment when he’s never been so forthcoming about where he is (London), what’s happening (having a hard time getting back to the US after a customs mix-up), or what he’s working on (finishing a new Madvillain album and the long-awaited DOOMSTARKS collaboration with Ghostface Killah), we go back to rediscover a little bit of the mysterious romance that keeps us thinking about DOOM. As his collaborations are so omnipresent as to be ubiquitous, we had to limit our coverage to full-length albums with DOOM rapping throughout, that were definitively not just beat libraries or production forays on M.I.C. records.
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