Doom's roundabout recession rap hits home
"Absolute power corrupts absolutely" goes the seething hook of "Absolutely" off Born Like This (Lex), the latest album from Doom (nee MF Doom). Most of Born feels similarly hopeless and deterministic--it's the first post-Obama political album whose cynicism doesn't feel decadent--but that's oddly refreshing because last time dude dropped a proper album, it was a toothless collaboration with lightweight producer Danger Mouse that had Doom repping Adult Swim and rapping with Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
On the new one, though, Doom's rap pals are like-minded weirdo thugs (Raekwon, Ghostface, Kurious, Freddie Foxxx) and, on "Cellz," the ornery rhymes of Charles Bukowski. "Cellz" places a wonky stumble of drums beneath an extended sample from said scribe (the poem "Dinosauria, We") that lays out a series of darkly funny, fucked-up ironies of American life: "Born like this, into this, into hospitals which are so expensive, that's its cheaper to die." It's a brilliant collaboration.
Sampling Bukowski turns the words of "the poet laureate of Skid Row" into an obvious precursor to the bitter humor and tough-to-reconcile pluralities that the best rap has embraced, be it Public Enemy's "911 Is a Joke," Bun B of UGK's wistful, casual aside from "One Day" ("My brother's been in pen for damn near 10/ But now it look like when he come out man, I'm goin' in"), or Doom himself, who quipped on "Rhymes Like Dimes" from his recently re-released, 1999 solo debut Operation Doomsday (Metal Face): "Only in America could you find a way to make a healthy buck and still keep your attitude on self-destruct."
That Born arrives within a few months of Doom's solo debut re-issue is plenty apt; Doom's finally circled back to the disturbing quirk of his early stuff and lessened the coasting, whimsical rapper he'd become. Doom's apparent disinterest in work fit the cynical "super villain" persona he cultivated, but the whole thing became a parody of a parody when he embarked on a concert stunt for an album he never recorded, to be called Imposter: Ticket-buying fans got terse Doom live shows lip-synched by a rather non-Doom looking guy wearing a mask--an imposter. Sure, it was all part of the conceptual dickhead persona and a kind of Dylan-esque attack on fair-weather fans, but it reeked of wanton boredom, not all that different from say, the nihilistic ennui that got 50 Cent to release a sex tape of Rick Ross' "baby mama."
With Born, Doom's rediscovered the reason he made the "super villain" character: to lash-out at the stuff he can't control, not his fans and hip-hop peers. So Doom gets personal-political and wrestles with an overarching concern ("Folks gather round/ It's no joke like knock-knock," from "Microwave Mayo") and an above-it-all disgust ("sentenced to 10/ The wheels fall off, then it's the end," from "Ballskin") with the state of the nation. Doom now is more a conflicted, searching rapper with a Madoff-like streak of cruelty than a comic book evil heel.
Simply by making an album with focus and feeling, many of Doom's rote tricks are reinvigorated. The oddball samples that haven't had much context since Operation's use of Doctor Doom cartoon clips to chart Daniel Dumile's autobiography of grief and scorn once again add to the sense of, well, doom that fills Born. Lots of COPS-esque reality show clips coldly describe cruelty happening all around. "Rap Ambush" begins with a Southern-accented police officer laying down a laundry list of significant problems with a hostage situation only to end it confidently with "other than that, the operation went fairly well," which sounds like the sort of denial dispensed by the last presidential administration.
Doom's signature, staccato, on-off rhythm beats--mainly from Doom or Jake One--are mostly recycled from the Special Herbs series, but it hardly matters because they're the perfect soundtrack for catastrophe. "Yessir," essentially an exercise in flipping hip-hop sample staple "UFO" by ESG, feels immediate again, the sirens more an ominous knell of what's to come than the same ones heard on Big Daddy Kane's "Ain't No Half-Steppin."
A sense of community even seeps through Born's over-arching despair. That Doom modestly steps back and gives whole songs to guests Raekwon ("Yessir") and Empress Sharhh ("Still Dope") half negates the self-obsessed "supervillain" bit. And given Doom's constant beef with all his '90s-rap buddies, the fact that Kurious--who made past appearances on KMD's Black Bastards and on Operation--gets some rap time on "More Rhymin" and "Supervillainz" is near heartwarming.
The album begins and ends with a merry gospel sample that repeats "thank ya," which is partly a nod to fans and partly a tribute to the late, great producer J. Dilla, who provides two beats ("Gazzillion Ear", "Lightworks") and whose 2006 Donuts was similarly bookended with a soul loop. The abstract Dilla tribute even suggests a return to Operation's melancholy for a dead friend.
There are actual emotions here, namely anger, but some joy and a wealth of sadness, and it's what makes Born a success. It's not that the album sounds that different from the rapper's projects of the past few years, just that it feels like it all has a point beyond Doom's critic-proof "supervillain" conceit. It is less a contrarian mess than a properly contradictory, disjointed suite of songs for a country unsure of an easy response to the right now.
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