Something that appeals and does truly, madly etc is when an artist or piece of music or an artist clicks with me despite my instincts not to like to it. MF DOOM was held in the category (of not being something I'd like) for a long while, until I came across some music by chance.
Knotted up like roots of a mangrove with plenty of contradictions, something about his popularity (with people who read the same kinds of books as me and get burnt by the sun easily) made me suspicious, and I was wary because of his image as someone whose rhymes were ‘cute’ or self-aware. Even if this didn’t make much sense, as that moment of self-consciousness when an MC smiles, knowing that they have blitzed it is one of the first things I loved about hip-hop performance this second time around. Then I came across this, not so long ago …
At some point I’ll write more on DOOM, when I can find an angle that makes sense to me without it becoming too academic and … well, see above. What turned it was an emotional depth I could hear at some points in some of his verses, principally a sadness or chastising tone that went against the stereotype of DOOM as the 'funny guy/entertainer in a mask.'
Added to that I couldn’t help but be impressed by his brilliance. No other MC comes close to the way DOOM builds associations that have weight to them and are not just left hanging in a three-point lyrical rhumba: first idea, second, third the final word running on a rhyme that echoes a phoneme. At its best, DOOM’s lyrics can dazzle you with their skill, while also imparting something serious. Moreover, as I’ll argue below his tendency to shift tone, without developing it, is in itself intriguing in terms of technique.
When I discovered that this track from his collaboration with Danger Mouse, DANGERDOOM sampled Nico’s ‘Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams’ from Chelsea Girl, especially at this time when I’m thinking a lot about the use of strings in popular music, not just hip-hop but across the genres, well ping! Transformation of prejudices time (this has been sent to me).
It's said that it also samples ‘What The Beat’ from DJ Klue, feat. Method Man and Royce da 5’9 from his 2001 record, The Professional 2.
To again use the negative rhetorical set-up: the trademark elements of a DOOM track that had distanced me before were here, principally the skits/or samples from TV, moreover the production style is so clean/considered. Normally this kind of sound would be too conventional, at least with a lesser MC. But the opening less than 5 seconds here, the way it unfurls on itself is beautiful with the strange grunt, bamboo style drums and strings are nice. There’s the essential cleverness/wordplay:
The use of the ‘we’ is interesting and reinforces the menacing mood, it sounds threatening because of the ambiguous subject (to read about the play on lubiderm/Vazoplex and the rest of the song, go here). Then that emotional depth I referred to before comes through:
As DOOM says, this isn’t funny. He establishes the scene of possible sexual violence – though it’s deadpanned, it's not clear – or exploitation; 'that’s how he ran his hustle,' telling the story of someone who is again unidentified. This refusal to set up characters is striking. A less adventurous MC would either end up describing a friend back at school or who is now in prison etc or focus on him/herself as the narrator, but DOOM rarely does this. He creates a lyrical space where we are already inside the action, as he tells the story.
As a lyrical device in hip-hop this is quite experimental: the way he gestures towards telling a story (refers to the typical paradigms and characters) without actually doing it. He refers to a situation (as above) but then doesn’t allow us to see it develop into a conclusion, as you’d expect.
The narrative does continue, but is the ‘seemingly modest fellow’ the same as the ‘young’un’ I don’t know.
Compare this ambiguity and refusal to tie things up neatly with Nas’s narrative/storytelling style that develops characters or stories to represent his arguments, in ‘What Goes Around’ from his 2001 album Stillmatic :
The genius of Nas's lyricism is apparent certainly. He like DOOM doesn't over-state, or over-extend his references to other people's stories, he touches on them/makes connections then moves on. And yet the characters are clear to us, as is the overall argument of his lyrics. Neither could be said about DOOM's lyricism, even if we sense that they exist.
See here how DOOM then jumps to another subject, posing a question about ‘dedicated dads’ before – apparently – critiquing the self-absorption of his contemporary MCs suggests his intent is also to provide some (critical) commentary on the current state of affairs:
Here’s an excerpt from a longer interview with DOOM where he speaks about his lyricism, the way he writes his rhymes with the listener in mind, thinking about how they will have expectations to then skirt around them.
I've written a lot on Nico and the Velvet Underground on this site, follow the tags and two appreciations of her work: