By Nick Richardson
There’s hip hop records you pretty much ‘get’ after a couple of listens – your 50 Cents, Games and Snoop Doggs. Then there’s the whole gamut of genre classics, Illmatic, Infamous, 3Ft High, 36 Chambers, etc. etc. – intelligent, rich and complex, but still, essentially, penetrable. And then there’s records like the latest from masked MC Daniel Dumile, formerly known as MF Doom, now simply DOOM, which you’ll never get to the bottom of.
This is for several reasons. First, DOOM’s vocals play so perfectly into the folds of his beats that it becomes very difficult to treat beats and rhymes separately. DOOM’s voice isn’t laid over the beats so much as inserted into them, providing a counterpoint to the grooves as opposed to riding roughshod over the top. On stand-out track “Lightworks” for instance, DOOM’s woolly monotone is nested snugly in the midrange while bubbling Tropical percussion and a breathy synth hook wrap themselves round the vocal, EQed to wriggle in the foreground. The buried-ness of DOOM’s raps is particularly conspicuous next to his guests on the collabo tracks, like “Angelz” with Ghostface Killah alter ego Tony Starks – Starks drops a fairly rote gangsta narrative, lyrically quite dull but sonically clear as crystal. DOOM’s verse on the other hand is so totally embedded in the beat’s orchestral loop that it takes a couple of listens before you start hearing words and not just shapes.
Second, DOOM’s lyrics mix up linear narrative and free association to a disorienting degree. “More rhymin’/ Pure diamond / Tore hymen / Poor timin’ / Paul Simon tourin’” begins “More Rhymin’”, no apparent logic governing the flow of images besides the simple joy of, well, more rhymin’. But DOOM teases the attentive with fragments of linearity, nods obliquely at an underlying narrative. The opening sequence of rhymes on “More Rhymin’” is followed by the line “Gone haywire on the interstate”, half-gesturing at a storyline that might scoop up and make sense of what’s gone before – he’s in his car on the interstate letting his mind go haywire, coming up with rhymes to forestall boredom in a traffic jam, or rhyming at speed as he goes haywire tearing up the road. Or rhyming so fast he’s like a loony going haywire on the interstate. Born Like This is full of moments like this where, however you interpret him, the insertion of narrative fragments legitimises the flow of nonsense, and stops the verses from becoming mere strings of euphonic rhymes. Possible meanings proliferate, and the listening becomes an investigation rather than an idle word-bath.
Third, it’s impossible to discern the degree of irony in DOOM’s lyrics. Take the track “Gazillion Ear” – at first glance, it’s a standard boast of financial aspiration: “Won’t stop rockin’ till he’s clocked another gazillion grand” he begins. But you have to wonder at his use of the word “gazillion”, a playground nonsensism, with its phonetic resemblance to “guzzle” and “gaz oil”. Is DOOM taking a sly dig at the childish greed of more worldly rappers, even the dehumanising materialism of the world at large? Certainly, he hints that his drive is for less material wealth. He has “treasure maps stacked to the ceiling fan” which send him “tilling the wasteland sands” – a pretty good analogy of the writing process, stacking up sheets of first drafts, guiding himself ever closer to the nuggets of lyrical gold. It’s leading, too, that he doesn’t use the word “gazillionaire”, but “gazillion EAR”, suggesting the track is as much about listening as it is about money, the listener is the treasure seeker, excavating his reward from the shifting sands of DOOM’s verses.
DOOM’s verses are masks of intricate design and ingenuity, whose surfaces distract and baffle. A tangled mass of red herrings kidding you with glimpses of what might lie beneath, but ultimately leading nowhere. Masks where what lies beneath stops being important anyway because the game of trying to figure it out becomes so involving. Which is to say, you can listen hard to Born Like This a gazillion times and still have no idea what it all means – and how many hip hop records can you say that about?