DOOM – ‘Born Like This’
June 30, 2009 § Leave a comment
Published: The Vine, May 26, 2009.
Born Like This
Whether we’re aware of it or not, we tend to impose a particular set of prerequisites on specific genres. Our reading of hip-hop – perhaps more than other idioms – is riddled with constraints and requirements. A loaded collection of aesthetics, themes and narratives are central to the conclusions we draw.
So what happens when an artist seems to subvert the vast majority of hip-hop’s defining parameters? How do we read a hip-hop record that doesn’t necessarily kick on the first listen? How do we assess a hook that is so buried and entwined in weirdness and noise and detail that we barely notice it’s there? And, like, what do we do with couplets that in one instance are solemn and reflective and in others, bizarre and flippantly warped? Like, who the fuck rhymes “pure diamond”, “torn hymen” and “poor timin’” with “Paul Simon tourin’, I’m in”? Who talks about getting a message “by bird mail, or turd’s flail”?
Cue the ever-reclusive, utterly iconoclastic masked one, Daniel Dumile. The man once known as Zevlove X, more famously as MF Doom and now just as DOOM, has twisted, broke and bent nearly all expectations in his 18-year rap and production career. For one, he hasn’t stepped out from behind his metal mask (inspired by Marvel Comics villain Dr Doom) and shown his face in public since the mid-90s, effectively doing away with hip-hop’s want personality and a sense of non-fictional realism. Secondly, his razor-sharp diction and positively bonkers subject matter have resulted in some of the almost frightfully unique hip-hop records to have ever graced the shelves. The skewed offspring of his 2004 Madvillain collaboration with Madlib – the mind-boggling Midvillainy – is one of the best-reviewed records of recent times and still arguably hip-hop’s key post-millennium release.
The early mail on Born Like This, the latest brilliant chapter in the DOOM oeuvre, had the record too dense, too opaque and lacking the immediacy of his best work. Even with its cast of Wu-Tang impresarios Ghostface and Raekwon, Rhymesayers main man Slug and De La’s Posdnous (in a hilarious, vocoder-drenched cameo as P-Pain), not to mention DOOM, Madlib, Jake One and the late Dilla on the beats, critics weren’t really feeling the record like they hoped. It was understandable. Born Like This – which lifts its title from the Charles Bukowski poem ‘Dinosauria, We’ – lacks the kind of upfront hooks and straight kick-snare momentum that informs most thinking on hip-hop. Its tangled, rickety, retro organ and piano-lined beats and puzzle-piece rhyme schemes aren’t the kind that will impress the high-rotation FM radio set.
But a couple of months in, the more short-sighted the record’s early reviews seem to become and the more it could be argued that the album’s lack of directness actually proves one of its strengths. Indeed, from the meandering bass line and chiming keys of ‘Gazzillion Ear’, the key to Born Like This is in its slow-burn, residual detail. While DOOM’s famed humour is ever present, his weird-arse couplets are punctuated by a darker, more sinister thematic direction. DOOM’s oblique sketches over the brooding, buried Madlib beat of ‘Absolutely’ – with its brutal, body part-strewn rendering of a crooked legal system and chorus line of “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” – is one of the darkest, strongest moments of his career. The stabbing, jolting apocalypse of ‘Cellz’ – replete with a Bukowski monologue – is another fine moment.
There are plenty of lighter tracks. The glittering Jake One piano line and aforementioned diamonds, hymens and flailing turds of ‘More Rhymin’’ make for one of the record’s strongest cuts, while first single ‘Ballskin’, Dilla reprise ‘Lightworks’ and ‘Microwave Mayo’ are further highlights.
In fact, while Born Like This feels a little impenetrable at first, once you’ve broken the surface there are very few weak moments. It may not be another Madvillainy, but if we’re to suspend our expectations for a minute and listen a little harder to this collection of creaking, fall-apart tracks, there’s gold dust in the rubble and the debris.