Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Dangerdoom – The Mouse and the Mask


America’s craving some Doom: probably the most undeniable line on MF Doom and Dangermouse’s heavily hyped collaboration. After dropping 2004’s best and most trend-defying album as one half of Madvillain and cementing his indie cred with his second LP under his “official” name, Daniel Dumile became your favorite writer’s favorite rapper and his work with the similarly hip producer Dangermouse was destined for appreciation by the music press no matter what the results were. After all, everybody had finally just caught up with the blitz of releases he’d delivered since 2003 and props were due…with interest. Hiphopsite gave it an album of the year nod, XXL, Scratch, Urb and their ilk went bananas and while Pitchfork didn’t go crazy, it was probably due to their current fascination with Atlanta flavored adlib-rap. The scene was set for a takeover of massive proportions by underground standards and 100 000 albums later, it’s hard to call The Mouse and the Mask anything less than a success for all involved. However, beneath the favorable press and robust sales lurks a fun, yet flawed album that was glossed over by reviewers more interested in Doom’s story and position vis-à-vis rap in 05 than the content of the music. Even more interestingly, it’s the first album Doom’s delivered that actually shows the cracks in his seemingly invincible armor, despite still flying high above most of the other releases that attempted to make noise half-way through the decade.

By now it’s cliché to heap praise on Doom’s off the cuff, pop-culture appropriating lyrics, but it’s true that the man’s best moments manage to thrill by the sheer wit of his wordplay. The opening lines set the album’s tone and position his current identity: the super flow with more jokes than Bazooka Joe, a mix between Superfly Snuka and a Supa Ho. The words seem like nonsense until you realize that he’s sketched an entire character out of two bars, chewing gum, a wrestler and a Scott Larock reference. Noticeably absent from rhymed self-portrait however is the anger and street edge that Doom had until a few years back, a trait the now middle aged villain has seemingly retired for good after his Viktor Vaughn work. This is a definite throw off for fans expecting the 5% slang appeal of his 90’s creations, but something that’ll barely be noticed by his new, expanded audience perfectly content with the less threatening direction, brighter beats and brand-name concept. In actuality, the production and concept actually take a bigger hit than the lyrics which while street, never erred towards G-rap territory deriving their bite from Doom’s left-of field beat flips. Dangermouse’s sound however, while certainly not without its moments, feels far too clean and processed for a man who rhymes best on the dusty or digital soundscapes he’d previously used. Still, it works for what it is and the album’s most disappointing feature undoubtedly remains the lack of conceptual focus compared to his previous outings. Where Doom once switched his flow from his standard post-KMD style to Viktor Vaughn’s fluid storytelling, Geedorah’s brash boasting or monotone Madvillainous free association on each project, he instead forgoes such efforts here making The Mouse and the Mask his least cohesive project yet as the only thing keeping the tracks together are (somewhat annoying) skits.

Luckily, while the album falters conceptually, it’s actually quite listenable on a song for song basis. Doom essentially delivers three types of tracks on the LP: romanticized recollections of his character’s past criminal life, post-Madvillain freestyle filler and conceptual if gimmicky experiments in rhyme. The best moments are easily those where Doom brings us back to his darker days of youth; Sofa King for example re-imagines Doom’s life as a ghetto folk tale, building on the intro’s quirkiness and turning it into a rambling verse that’s half word game and half confession. Basket Case and Crosshairs meanwhile paint surprisingly vivid pictures of mental instability and lost years over the album’s most evocative beats, realizing the full potential of a DM collaboration. These tracks recall Doom’s best work of days past where he weaved his anger and frustration at the record industry throughout his rhyming for the sake of riddling. On the other hand, the album’s topic-free tracks such as Benzi Box and No names fail to excite as the punchlines lack purpose and fall flat over the tiny G-Funk light production. If Danger’s more melodic strings, bass and flute sections tend to bring out the best in Doom, his Dr Dre imitations reveal only throwaway verses that’d be better placed on someone else’s release for a quick check. Finally, the remaining conceptual jams hold the album together nicely and while not always Doom’s best moments, they fit in nicely with the album’s animated concept. Depending on your tolerance for rhymes about cartoons, talk shows and urine, these will either provoke amusement or a screwface though for my money, the rap scene could use a few laughs (and by extension perhaps the rumored joint effort with Prince Paul). Throw in guest verses by Talib Kweli (who surprisingly doesn’t suck) and Ghostface Killah (who unsurprisingly steals the show) and The Mouse and the Mask still goes down easy despite it’s flaws which is more than what can be said about the average 05 LP which should come with a prepackaged skip button.

Ultimately, Dangerdoom is the former Zev Lux X’s most accessible outing yet and easily the least streetwise since his earliest days. Hard rocks may recoil in horror, particularly when they come face to face with the man’s new hipsterised audience but despite this, most of the qualities that made the man’s music so interesting remain intact. Still, here’s to hoping that his upcoming work with Ghostface brings out his dark side and that his upcoming Madvillain sequel serves to restore his full focus. Cartoon’s are fun and have always been Doom’s thing, but he shouldn’t forget reality altogether.

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