Thurs Aug 16, Paradox, $9/$12.
Rap is plenty concerned with "ugliness" such as violence, abusive sex, drug addiction, etc. But when rapping, MCs talk about these terrible things as "the realness." The ability to transform "ugliness" into "realness" makes MCs strong, even heroic. This ability, then, is a thing of beauty.
MF Doom's radical innovation on his album Operation: Doomsday! is that he illuminates the concept of "ugliness," but not in the sense of being bigger or badder than the hardships. Instead, Doom articulates the manner in which terrible events can overwhelm a person. Rather than address ugliness as realness as if he were hard, Doom responds to such ugliness by donning an actual iron mask.
Doom wears this mask at all his concerts. But unlike Humpty's plastic nose or Kool Keith's "Black Elvis" wig, this isn't a joke or a gimmick. I spoke with Doom last May from his Atlanta home, when Operation: Doomsday! and Bl_ck B_st_rds (from his previous group KMD) were re-released on SubVerse records, and he explained this MC persona: "The rap game turns you into something," he said. "It's so much now about who you are and what you look like, that I'm like, 'Yo, it don't even matter what I look like.' People who write novels... you'll read the whole book and there's only one picture of the dude on the back... it's written, it's music, that's enough."
Back when Doom was known as ZevLove X, his group KMD enjoyed one hit, "Peachfuzz," from Mr. Hood (1992), but the brilliant and dynamic 1994 album, Bl_ck B_st_rds, was dropped by Elektra. Allegedly it was because of the controversial cover art, a drawing of a lynched Sambo character. To KMD the drawing meant "kill the stereotype," but to Elektra it threatened a controversy they'd rather do without. Even when KMD offered to change the cover, the project was shelved. Shortly afterward, DJ Subroc, Doom's brother, died in a car accident.
Five years after this professional insult and personal tragedy, ZevLove X reappeared on Bobbito's Fondle 'Em Records as MF Doom. On the cover of Operation: Doomsday! is a cartoon drawing of a man wearing a metal mask and holding a microphone, and on the back there's a photo of two men in robes standing in front of a nondescript house, both with censorship-style black bars over their eyes. The first two tracks, "Doomsday" and "Rhymes Like Dimes," are soaring, smooth, and energized, but then the mood of the album turns. "The Finest" and "Red and Gold" use an early-'80s-style synthesized beat; "The Mic" features a loud and out-of-key singer; "Tick Tick" speeds up and slows down along with dragging violins. These sounds do not construct the typical "dope tracks" you find on every other rap album. In fact, they're kind of corny, or just sound bad.
On Operation: Doomsday!, Doom used skits to create an album of "continuous meaning." The record features dialogue taken from the film Wild Style, in which graffiti artist Lee Quinones struggles with the quality of his art and the flimsy promises of fame. The dialogue alternates with skits taken from the Fantastic Four cartoon where Dr. Doom plots his revenge on a world that treated him cruelly. The skits collide in the middle of the album when an experiment from the vindictive Doom backfires, making his face "hideous" (thus the need for the metal mask). The scene shifts to Quinones explaining how he "messed up" on his graffiti piece and describing "the hands of doom" that he has painted. The theme seems to be that the beauty of art (Quinones' piece) and invention (Doom's experiment) is volatile, and can suddenly turn hideous if things go wrong.
Because of Doom's exposition of art's vulnerability, and because he consciously makes music that sounds bad, MF Doom deserves his self-title as rap's "super villain." On "Rhymes Like Dimes," he says he "came to destroy rap," but instead of being anti-heroic (the kind of heroism that Billy the Kid or Ghostface Killah represent, which is equally as beautiful), Doom is not heroic. In our interview, he told me that the "theater" of being this kind of villain "stands out from any other MCs that are out now.... The villain is like the average Joe, someone who you could meet, or who you might know from school."