Whether the elaborate, tangled kung fu-n-comic book narratives that color countless Wu-Tang songs or Jay-Z's oft-repeated voyage from the mean streets to Easy Street, hip-hop is certainly at no loss for grand mythologies. The blurring of the line fantasy and reality is endemic to the genre, the concept of “keeping it real” perhaps not as important as re-defining that reality according to a set of predetermined plot points. Is it any wonder so many rappers operate under aliases?
Yet even among such willful exaggerations and simple tall tales, the story of Daniel Dumile fascinates. Emotionally scarred by both the death of his brother and an industry that refused to grant him sanctuary, Dumile adopted the persona of MF Doom, a damaged scourge come to wreak havoc on the world that destroyed him. Dumile repeatedly refers to himself as the “Supervillain,” but his main aim isn't to inflict destruction so much as it is to report it. His debut, Operation Doomsday was like a news broadcast from 30 years in the future, a place where the planet was populated by crudely-drawn anthropods running from smeared day-glo explosions.
The mood isn't any lighter on Born Like This, Dumile's first record under the Doom moniker since 2004's weird and weirdly unsatisfying MMM…Food. There are haunted house organs in the background of “Gazzillion Ear” and ghosts in the verses, DOOM warning “One monkey don't stop no slaughter” as the beat pulses grimly behind him. It's as unnerving as it is invigorating, and while DOOM hasn't exactly been giving it his best effort in recent years — canceling shows and sending imposters to play others — on Born Like This, all the elements that made him so appealing in the first place are back in full effect. The production, an eerie hodge-podge of slowed-down soul, sped-up superhero music and scuffed-up sound effects, creates a kind of dimly-lit alternate universe, brought to life by DOOM's mush-mouthed narration. The album is nothing but standouts: the Bukowski-biting horror show “Cellz,” the fractured funk of “Ballskin,” the bleary Ghostface duet “Angelz,” (the latter was supposed to appear on the duo's rumored album-length collaboration; it's appearance here virtually assures that will never see the light of day). Though most of the songs are brief, none of them feel half-assed. Instead, they feel like breathless victory sprints. “The end of days fades,” DOOM huffs on the videogame breakdown “Microwave,” “Pretenders lay in dazes on stages / DOOM melees / eat ‘em up / microphone, microwave / mayonnaise.”
That last run brings up a hard-to-miss point. Line up DOOM's verses in a row and they don't make a whole lot of literal sense. Take this surrealist Mad Lib from “Lightworks”: “Welcome to the octagon / Lair, player flat before the trainer felt his clock was on / Keep your socks torn / with hard rock, black rock / and Ron's gone Barbazon / curled up, begging, laying on the canvas / instead of in the ready position, like praying mantis.” It's all sense imagery stream-of-consciousness, but set it against shrieking sirens and bubbling-lava sound effects, and the results are chilling.
Records this satisfying are what earn DOOM the leverage to disappear for years at a time without explanation. He re-emerges like a pesky prophet, speaking in ominous riddles that he leaves for other people to decipher. Let the rest of the world live in hope; DOOM will keep calling down fire.