In 2003 and 2004, MF DOOM briefly challenged Madvillain partner/musical soulmate Madlib for the title of most prolific man in hip-hop, churning out five impressive studio albums in a little over two years, plus multiple instrumental projects. Following the success of 2004’s Madvillainy and 2005’s The Mouse And The Mask, though, the rapper/producer’s once voluminous output slowed to a trickle. The 2009 comeback album Born Like This represented DOOM’s first proper studio album in four years, and while fans wait patiently for a long-rumored, now-fabled collaborative album with Ghostface Killah and a second helping of Madvillain, DOOM has instead returned with a pair of less feverishly anticipated new projects: Ma_Doom: Son Of Yvonne with Juice Crew legend turned concept-album specialist Masta Ace, and Key To The Kuffs with rapper-producer Jneiro Jarel.
The albums are both collaborations from an artist who, for all his eccentricities (he’s notorious, for example, for sending masked imposters to play live shows for him), plays unusually well with others, but otherwise are a study in contrasts. On Ma_Doom: Son Of Yvonne, DOOM plays a role that’s both central and passive. The eccentric super-villain produced the album, but the beats are all recycled from DOOM’s Special Herbs instrumental series—a valuable resource DOOM has never been shy about dipping into himself, either for remixes, beats to rhyme over, or tracks he’s provided for artists like Ghostface Killah and Vast Aire. The beats aren’t the only element of Ma_Doom with an exquisitely lived-in feel. Nostalgia is the order of the day as Masta Ace casts an affectionate but clear-eyed glance back on his youth and adolescence in Brooklyn in the ’70s and ’80s, paying special attention to the role his mother played in turning him into the man he is today.
Ma_Doom filters Ace’s memories of growing up and coming up in hip-hop through a smartly chosen assortment of dusty DOOM beats lovingly cobbled together from the same time period Ace is rapping about. On “Me And My Gang,” Ace fondly and amusingly recalls the motley crew he used to run with over the same Saturday-morning-cartoon piano DOOM used on the Vast Aire collaboration “Da Supafriendz,” while the title track pays loving tribute to Ace’s mother over the smoky, after-midnight horn DOOM previously sampled for King Geedorah’s “Next Levels.” Despite the recycled production and dearth of new beats, Ma_Doom feels cohesive and purposeful, a tight, focused collaboration between battle-hardened veterans at their gentlest and most reflective. How can even the most hardened cynic not like an album where DOOM uses his one guest verse to wax unexpectedly and wonderfully sincere about how listeners should kiss their mothers?
Where everything about Ma_Doom is soothingly familiar and retro, the production on Key To The Kuffs, DOOM’s album with Jneiro Jarel, pushes DOOM out of his comfort zone. It’s twitchy and sinister, electronic and aggressive where the production on Yvonne is melodic and comforting. To accommodate the jagged angles and rough turns of Jarel’s glitchy production, DOOM trades in his usual deadpan-monotone delivery for a newfound versatility and dexterity. Lyrically, the supervillain’s tangents sometimes veer into Howard Hughes OCD territory. On “GMO,” DOOM warns of the dangers posed by genetic engineering and ponders if Frankenfoods will turn humanity into “thangs off Thriller or dang gorillas” while on the nastily funny “Wash Your Hands,” the cantankerous rapper obsesses over the threat groupies pose on a biological and molecular level.
DOOM recorded his verses for Key To The Kuffs in London after his return to the U.S. following a European tour was delayed by visa problems, which helps explain both the album’s Anglophile bent and moody air of dislocation. The album’s British origins are betrayed by song titles like “Rhymin Slang” (as in Cockney rhymin’ slang) and “Guv’nor,” as well as ghostly, borderline-subliminal cameos from Damon Albarn and Beth Gibbons on “Bite The Thong” and “GMO,” respectively.
Key To The Kuffs and Ma_Doom are not the collaborations DOOM fans have been waiting for (God knows when or if those will ever come out), but they’re satisfying all the same for very different reasons. These antithetical releases reflect two different sides of the eccentric, independent icon’s persona: the one that looks back at the past with palpable pride and affection, and the one that’s furiously engaged in the jittery sounds and international anxiety of today.