Tastes Yeats, Less Filling

The roots of MF Doom's odd-man-out hip hop

And I can almost smell and I can almost smell and I can almost smell...your TB sheets. Van Morrison made a sky blues out of that--tambourines and cheap wine at bedside with the death-room windows closed so you can dance out the bed sweats. The holy glow in an aspic of terminal demise--a great theme of Irish literature and of hip hop too. Pete Rock & CL Smooth's " They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)" = Yeats's "Easter, 1916." The fading heartbeat of Biggie's "Suicidal Thoughts" = the man who slits his throat and writes three "goodbye"s in his own blood on a framed photo of his deceased wife in the last page of Flan O'Brien's At Swim Two Birds. Hip hop's Joyce is hands down Ghostface Killah, catching teary wreck and new values from atoms out the mouths of dead values and done duns.

Who is his inheritor, his Beckett? Some might offer a Jadakiss or a Masta Killah. I'd offer a dark horse, MF Doom. I'm thinking here of the funniest of Beckett's pre-trilogy novels, Murphy. Murphy is a comic-book mongrel 60 years ahead of his time: as hermetically alienated as a DC supervillian yet powerlessly locked in the kind of mind-body Cartesian hell you find in Peter Bagge's Hate. We meet him in a blackened room sitting naked, his limbs tied to the chair as he tries to become a creature of mind only, a pure abstraction, a post-person free at last of the corporeal cage, response minus the need for stimulus. Beckett has a term for his teeming brain: "matrix of surds."

Doom's career begins with the biggest surd of them all: death itself, suffered back when Doom was Zevlove X of the great, darkly Afrocentric early '90s rap crew KMD. In 1993, his brother and rapping partner Sub Roc died in a car accident just a few weeks before Elektra rejected the band's second album, Black Bastards, due to its lynched Sambo cover art. A second surd followed by a third, the silence of Zev for five years until he returned remade as Doom on 1998's Operation: Doomsday, wearing an unironic iron mask and swapping his once buoyant post-Native Tongues cojones-through-chaos kiddishness for a slow and low think-tongued soul-brillo brio that sounded like nothing in hip hop. The music was recycled Quiet Storm ballads, a bizarre choice that cut eerily against an invitation to read whatever you'd like into his free-signifying intimations of danger and regret.

Since then he has seized on a growing undie-rap myth to let forth a phalanx of similarly unreadable characters. He made two records as Viktor Vaughn (a mad scientist who raps about shame, power, and pussy, one time over a sample of "All Tomorrow's Parties") and one amazing album (this year's Madvillainy) recorded as Madvillain, a duo formed by wonder-twinning with producer Madlib, who himself likes to dip into surdist abstraction, most brilliantly as Quasimoto on 1999's dislocated horn-dog travelogue The Unseen. Born in the southern California industrial noplace of Oxnard, Madlib hears Grant Green and Horace Silver the way put-out suburban sad kids hear the Smiths. He assumes personas for the same reason John Fogerty sang like a swamp dog or Camper Van Beethoven surfed space rays and played Middle Eastern ska or Tom Joad ran: lost in a noplace, rootless reinvention is the only redemption. Born to a world without cushion, you gotta bounce, like the "stray on a straightaway" Doom dreams of becoming on one of Madvillainy's few cheery moments. If only Doom could be as content in his tradition as Madlib is in his. It's not that he rejects rap. His subject matter isn't nearly as out the window as most indieground lyrical gobbledygook. He raps about the things rappers rap about, as materialist as Jay-Z and Chris Cringle but essential with the mental like Karl Marx and Fred Engels--ideas are the abstract reflections of our worried condition, getting and having, spending and possessing, contesting every inch, drinking alone, ignoring the cell phone. Doom turns this random bullshit noise of hip-hop tropery into a cubist plaything, questioning the clingy illusion that they're rooted in any lived reality at all--"Trees for the blunt/Gs for the front".... "Sometimes he rhymes quick, sometimes he rhymes slow, or vice versa, whip up a slice of nice verse pie, hit it on the first try".... "Eegads! She could start three fads".... "Pan it/If you can't understand it ban it...Any who profess will be remanded".... "Keep it low-key/known to pull an okey-dokey, silly goose, Doom is too jokey".... This doesn't mean he's just playing formalist shell games, though that would be okey-dokey too. His I-got-played reminisces are genuinely sad ("Ya know it like a poet, like baby doll, I bet she say she gave it her all, she played ball") and his detachment as felt as Billie Holiday's. But that only deepens the sense of lost-in-art aloneness.

Doom's new record, the brilliantly titled MM Food (on Slug's Rhymesayers) is less alone than usual but still based around a materialist quandary: getting fed. The record's samples and metaphors playfully root around the idea of staying full in an empty world. Without Madlib's eloquent sibilance and distended soul nods, Food at times seems somewhat pro forma and it's more bubbly than broke down, which might make it sound a little less deep. But as the first album released as Doom since he reappeared in 1998, it's a chance to extend the family brand ID, sample an old PBS jam (on a song called "Kookies"!), and flex his gooey virtuosity. In fact, this is the bounciest he's sounded since he cameoed as a 19-year-old on 3rd Bass's "The Gas Face" 15 years ago. Keith Harris has compared Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town to Beckett--"redemption through struggle." Doom's struggles make the Boss's Catholic bullshit sound like living trife. So hearing him pull down some Cheetos money is good emotional eats indeed.

 
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