Album Review: JJ DOOM: Key To The Kuffs

Posted: August 16, 2012 in Album Review, Best of 3rd Q 2012, Hip Hop
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

“You can’t trust the tap water, much less the kettle, double entendre to your phrase test your meddle” – DOOM

Despite the lack of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends DOOM-related samples, there’s no question from the intro on “Waterlogged,” to the last track that this is a DOOM project, rather than a project just using DOOM’s cult popularity for financial gains (and there have been a couple of those – musical Doombots, not to be confused with concert-going Doombots).  Once unavoidable questions of legitimacy are placed aside, Key to the Kuffs reveals itself to be an excellent project, another step in the right direction after MF DOOM ended his extended hiatus three years ago with the release of the critically acclaimed and fan appreciated Born Like This only to disappear again.  Jneiro Jarel is an unexpectedly nice foil for DOOM here, as his beats here sound like boom bap meets original Nintendo or 80’s arcade synth work.  Despite a distinctly different production methodology, the album is not a far cry from the formula on Madvillainy, where DOOM worked with a producer/rapper with a very distinctive lo-fi vibe, who could compliment DOOM’s eccentricity behind the boards, and jump in to handle a bit of the mic time just to break up the monotony of Dumile’s hypnotic crotchety reclusive long in the tooth god body lyricist routine and use interludes, his own vocals, and guests to spread out DOOM’s typically sparse set of lyrical offerings.  While DOOM has yet to prove that he has another Operation: DoomsdayMadvillainy, or Vaudeville Villain left in the chamber – primarily due to the fact that his once awe-inspiringly unique rhyme steez and song crafting technique have lost their luster a bit over the last thirteen odd years – he’s shown with Born Like This and again here with JJ DOOM that he still has the ability to create high quality music in the DOOM vein.

One of the brilliant aspects of albums like this and Madvillainy, is that they’re really built around the music, which stands well by itself. DOOM is clearly the show’s guest of honor and Master of Ceremonies, but it’s the music that holds the album together despite a relatively small offering of DOOM’s verses.  To those who might be taken aback by appearances from Damon Albarn, Beth Gibbons, and Thom Yorke, rest assured, you may not even notice they’re there at all.  For those who were hoping for some syrupy alt-rock trip hop DOOM and Jneiro Jarel work, you’ll leave disappointed, there’s no crooning real here and little resembling something you might hear on a dance floor. JJ DOOM is straight rap music, with the typical DOOM associated goofiness and middle finger to industry approved notions of song structure.

Like most of DOOM’s classic albums, the production here is completely seamless, created a cohesive mood throughout, bringing together every track from the rehashed version of DOOM’s collaboration with Thom Yorke, “Retarded Fren,” to the irreverent British homages “Guv’nor,” and “Rhymin’ Slang,” to his hilarious tale of unhygienic club hoppers, “Wash Your Hands.”  Like Madlib’s vocal contributions on Madvillainy Jneiro Jarel’s solo tracks fit well within the album’s overall vibe, without adding anything or taking anything away.  Despite the fact that they don’t carry the weight of DOOM’s contributions, they’re short and interesting enough from a sonic perspective to keep listeners from jumping for the skip button.

For a man who once went through a period where he flooded the market over a two or three year span, there’s no doubt that avid fans will leave the album just as thirsty for DOOM’s next project as they were before hearing Key To The Kuffs.  Over the course of just under forty minutes of music here, and a grand total of fourteen DOOM verses (although some of them extend well past the typical rapper’s sixteen, as DOOM often packs a full songs worth of bars into a one verse song), the listener is provided just enough material to enjoy the show, delve into the lyrical content, glance at the scenery, and crave more.  The remainder of the album is made up of two JJ solo joints, one solo track from Khujo Goodie, and four rapless cuts (“Waterlogged,” “Snatch That Dough,” “Bout the Shoes,” and “Viberian Sun Part 2”). Once again, those that have followed the leaked tracks that have come out off of this album, may find the listening experience less enjoyable as they may have spoiled three or four of the album’s nine DOOM helmed tracks already.  It’s a shame if they did, as everything sounds great within the context of the album, and it’s hard to imagine any of this material playing nearly as well out of context.

Lyrically, DOOM is a sharp as ever.  Verses are his typical mazes to unravel as DOOM takes the simplest words, phrases, and platitudes and somehow milks double meanings, unexpected wordplay, and smile inducing wit out of the unlikeliest of places.  Combined with his jazz influenced cadences that somehow dance in and out of pocket without spoiling the rhythm, and the listener is left with another set of trademark performances from one of the rap game’s true geniuses.

The album itself is the tale of a man apart, although long known to be reclusive, physically DOOM is now removed from his country and the five boroughs and Strong Island that created Zev Love X and eventually evolved MF DOOM and all of his alter-egos.  The records are replete with references to DOOM’s current ex-pat status starting with the previously leaked “Guv’nor,” and it’s clear that DOOM has invited his new physical surroundings into this creative psyche.  While he maintains the rapping style that he started on Operation: Doomsday and perfected on Madvillainy, that style and a general methodology towards album creation are the only real relics here of DOOM’s previous works.  The most glaring omission from his previous works is a lack of Marvel related references.  While DOOM refers to himself as the Supervillain and Villain on “Banished,” – a frenetically paced one verse explanation for DOOM’s absence over Jarel’s pulsating synths – there is a total scarcity of references to any of the usual Victor Von Doom affiliated cast of characters.

DOOM also seems slightly removed from the typically mischievous dealings of his Masked persona, they’re here, but a bit less frequent and pronounced.  On “GMO,” which features Portishead crooner Beth Gibbons, DOOM brings to bare his own brand of paranoid cautionary tale, with hints of the socio-political commentary, he’s displayed on past songs like “Strange Ways.”  This time it’s a self-consciously paranoid laced attack on the the poisons, carcinogens, and hazards of typical household products.  While it’s predominantly a humorous endeavor, one has to wonder given his extremely hermited existence if there are kernels of truth amid the hyperbole.

Winter Blues,” is a relaxed dedication to the recharging properties of physical contact, an unusual song for DOOM, a one verse dedication to sensuality that comes off with sincerity, rather his than tales of humorous encounters or war with ex’s.  Furthermore, “Winter Blues,” is another hint, along with the complete removal of the Marvel Universe and frequent references to his ex-patriate status, that maybe Dumile is beginning to lower the veil a bit on his extremely private existence.  Regardless, Dumile is still only sharing crumbs of his own personal life, and whether Dumile will continue to reveal more on future records remains to be scene.  The reality is that there is still plenty of DOOM variety comical irreverence on JJ DOOM, as “Guv’nor,” “Bite The Thong,” and “Rhymin’ Slang,” all fall within that vein neatly. “Wash Your Hands,” combines that humorous sensibility with a serious discussion of germs at the club, which given the obsessive compulsive paranoia displayed earlier in the album on “GMO,” will obviously add more fuel to the speculative theories surrounding DOOM’s reclusive tendencies.

All in all, this is not a perfect DOOM album, or one that’s going to challenge his classics for it’s place a top his catalog – the material from DOOM is just a bit to sparse and while his narrative voice may still be developing, his style has stagnated just a hair.  That said, the album stands alone as an impressive work of art, certainly one of the best rap albums to come out this year, and stands well above some of the more middling DOOM releases over the years.  Spending time with it, and delving into the subtlety, will likely reveal more about Dumile, along with hundreds of humorous couplets that will give way to more smiles and chuckles upon repeated listens.  For his part, Jneiro Jarel, a seemingly unlikely partner for this project, delivers a great soundscape for the project, leaving DOOM time to focus on his craft, and leaving room for his verses to breathe and sink in within the album’s uncompressed creative space.   Today the rap world can say welcome back to one of the greats, hopefully it won’t be another three years before we see another project from the man with the mask.

You can currently stream JJ DOOM Key to the Kuffs on Pitchfork and pre-order it through Lex Records with exclusive free stuff.

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