Hip-hop, more than any other genre, has always maintained a degree of healthy competition among its artists. It probably stems from a long tradition of rap battles and high concentration of testosterone; whatever the cause, at any given moment there’s likely to be a handful of individuals proclaiming to be the “best rapper.” It’s interesting then, that in 2004, MF DOOM became arguably the world’s greatest emcee without submitting to petty beefs or traditional boasting. Instead, after a brief time in the `90s rapping with KMD as Zev Love X, he created the Metal Face Doom, a character so intriguingly evil and unscrupulous that no social convention was safe from his dark and twisted perversion. DOOM didn’t only escape the genre’s all-too-familiar subject matter and conventions, he blasted away from them with colorful imagery, clever word twists, and a myriad of pop culture references in each verse. As for the lyrical style, few could match his complex interior rhyming patterns, which invariably demanded immediate replays.
The ascension to the top accelerated in 2003 with the release of Vaudeville Villain under one of DOOM’s many aliases, Viktor Vaughn. The very next year he teamed up with legendary Los Angeles underground producer Madlib to craft what would become both his most critically acclaimed and overall successful release, Madvillainy. In November of the same year, he dropped the anagrammatic LP, Mm… Food, a disc that continued his impressive streak with upbeat production that recalled his 1999 solo debut, Operation Doomsday. But then, after a mediocre collaboration with Danger Mouse in 2005, his prolific tendencies tapered and he was even suspected of putting on shows with some random guy performing on stage, lip-syncing underneath his iconic Gladiator mask. Fast-forward to a half-hearted full length in 2009, Born Like This, and three years later DOOM has conjured up another producer collaboration, this time with Jniero Jarel.
DOOM’s creativity and originality was undoubtedly a driver of his success, but unfortunately, the lack thereof is the biggest problem with Key To The Kuffs. Much of the album feels like a rehash of former works, except this time the references and evil-doings don’t land with the same ferocity or cleverness that they did in the past. DOOM sounds a bit lazy in some sections, especially with lines like, “Rarely, scarcely, scary glare-y stare/ let’s be very clear, MCs is derriere.” Yes, most of those words rhyme, but the lines lack the substance and imagery of old. Also, DOOM is no stranger to pointless skits, but tracks like “Snatch That Dough” and the end of “Winter Blues” are so brainless that they’re tough to listen to.
Key To The Kuffs does have some bright spots, however. In fact, the album gets off to a great start with “Guv’nor” and “Banished,” the latter of which features a thumping, swinging bass that DOOM lithely raps over at two times the necessary speed. Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood even make an appearance to do their best Madlib/Flying Lotus impression on “Retarded Fren.” The track is another highlight even if DOOM doesn’t quite bring his A-plus, look-up-the-lyrics-online game.
Most DOOM fans will logically ask the question at this point, “Why this and not Madvillainy 2?” It’s certainly what the fans have been requesting for more than half a decade, and despite some one-off tracks its hard for me not to wonder if the illest villain is afraid to disappoint, this far along. Madvillainy 2 may well arrive after all, but if it’s to offer any source of redemption, DOOM’s going to have to make far more heroic and bold decisions than those found on Key to the Kuffs.
Video: JJ DOOM – “Guv’nor”