Sunday, July 28, 2019

resonators 2019 - episode #019 - 'operation doomsday' by MF DOOM

So normally in the course of this series I try to get a bit cute and set the scene without really mentioning the names or album I'm discussing until the title drop... but there's a time when you just can't do that and this is one of those cases...

Because his name is MF DOOM.

And while at this point his legacy is plenty secure - although you could argue his run through the late 90s and early 2000s even today does not get the credit or acclaim it deserves - it's worthwhile going back even further to set the scene, back to the early 90s where MF DOOM was making music under the alias Zev Love X in the trio KMD, who wound up getting picked up by Elektra and releasing their debut in 1991, which even had a smattering of singles success. But then a score of tragedies hit: his younger brother and fellow KMD member DJ Subroc was killed in a car accident and their second album Black Bastards was shelved given the far darker content and questionable album art - which in the face of gangsta rap on the horizon is the sort of stupid irony for which someone should have pushed out of Elektra. And that person wound up being Zev Love X, who was given $20,000 and the master tapes of Black Bastards to leave Elektra - again, seems like a real brain trust over there in hindsight, especially given how Black Bastards became one of the most heavily bootlegged underground rap projects of the mid-90s. But that was small consolation, as Zev Love X retreated from hip-hop in the gangsta rap era, damn near homeless in New York City even as his legacy grew...

Fast-forward to 1997 - mainstream and underground hip-hop were splitting in two, and in Manhattan MF DOOM was slowly returning to rap through freestyling. He would soon utilize the infamous Doctor Doom mask to enhance his air of mystery and then sign to Fondle 'Em Records, a now-defunct indie label founded by radio personality Bobbito Garcia, a longtime friend of MF DOOM from the KMD days and who was instrumental in finally giving Black Bastards a proper release in 1998. Despite being founded as basically a running joke, at least for a short time Fondle 'Em would go along with Rawkus as one of the premier New York indie labels, with early releases for the Juggaknots and Cage, but with the first few singles, MF DOOM was the breakthrough, and it would lead to one of the most celebrated underground debuts in hip-hop: that's right, it's Operation Doomsday by MF DOOM, and this is Resonators!

So like with Company Flow and Black Star, in some form I've actually reviewed MF DOOM before, either in a full-length review or a discussion of his often excellent guest verses. More to the point he is an artist I'm familiar with: before covering this, I've heard chunks of his back catalog over the years, I'm familiar with his more scattershot, freeform style and delivery, where he'll slide around the beat and string together references that sometimes can be overwhelming in their cleverness but at some points seeming obtuse or connected by a strand of logic you can't quite contextualize. And yet when I say going back to Operation Doomsday caught me by surprise, it's more because it feels like the necessary transitional step to transform Zev Love X into MF DOOM. At the time it makes sense that it would serve as a reintroduction to a tremendous and distinctive talent, but nowadays it's fascinating how much this album feels distanced from where DOOM is today, but still unmistakably him. 

And one reason why I opened this conversation with a discussion of MF DOOM's KMD background is because it does colour the arc of the album, especially illuminated in the sample-heavy skits that bookend the project and flesh out the story, basically taking you through a retro-cartoon version of Doctor Victor Von Doom's origins, both in his madcap hubris and how Doom has always been more complicated as a villain than some give him credit, especially given the competitive war he fought with the Fantastic Four. It's an easy parallel to see the physical scars of Doom's accident mirrored in the emotional and mental scars of MF DOOM's years after his brother's accident and the rejection of him and KMD, but dig between the lines and DOOM shows some real self-awareness - he's playing a cartoon tyrant and the album is book-ended by the sounds of kids arguing back and forth, which frames the inherent mythmaking that comes from DOOM assuming this alter-ego - one of the reason why the album is punctuated to so many references to pulp sci-fi and superheroes that would come to characterize his entire career. And while the wild darkness that would come to character later albums would show just how deadly serious MF DOOM was taking all of this, this album is... lighter, and absolutely more accessible than I would have expected from MF DOOM! It's actually a really great introduction point into his style and cadence, from his pile-up of bars to his revealing pauses-and-substitutions - which again, takes a bit of getting used to - and while I will not say I'm a fan of his singing, which shows up a couple times on the back half of the project and is pretty rough, you can tell how slightly old-school flows are getting bent into something unique going forward.

And I want to highlight this uniqueness, because even going back to it now, in its choice of melody and groove Operation Doomsday fits a place for which I'm not sure there's a lot of easy comparison points, especially when you remember that MF DOOM under a different alias produced the majority of the project himself! For one, it's significantly smoother and more slick that you'd expect, pulling on a slightly older timbre of old-school hip-hop, and while the textures feel lo-fi, it's never to the point of feeling fragmented or abrasive, even when DOOM will drop out the beat entirely before bringing it back for an extended outro, a quirk that does make a project like this feel a little indulgent around the edges. And that's not saying there isn't experimentation here, because there absolutely is: the ominous strings playing off the dusty groove that constantly seems to be slowing down and speeding up with DOOM's cadence is definitely an uncanny vibe on 'Tick, Tick...', and that's before you consider the melodic palette of the project, which has a slinkier, clearer tone on a lot of songs than you'd expect, from the scratching playing off the Sade interpolation on 'Doomsday' to the flashy 80s R&B gloss of 'Red & Gold', from the gentle Teena Marie flip off 'Operation: Greenbacks' to the fizzy knock off the chimes and Atlantic Starr interpolation on 'The M.I.C.', from the scratchy keys around '?' to the liberal Quincy Jones sample that's cheesy but still has real rollick on 'Rhymes Like Dimes'. And just when you think it's all quirk, you get the grimy lo-fi knock of the posse cut 'Who Do You Think I Am?', or the organ and sinister horns behind 'Hey!', or the chaotic whirl of samples slicing around the very 80s Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis production on 'The Finest'. And while I could nitpick and say that DOOM's vocal fidelity never quite seems blended fully at the same fidelity as his samples, or even consistently across the album - and then there's the singing, which again, isn't good - it's never to the point where it feels egregious and again, it's DOOM - it kind of fits the scattered, rummaging vibe that's always been in his work.

And now we get to the content, and where it would be very easy to say that DOOM hadn't yet fully developed his more layered, free-association style of rhyming where the word choice and imagery often told more of the story than any narrative, because most of these songs wouldn't be far amiss from what you'd get on most hip-hop projects: bragging about wordplay, talking about violence, even songs where it seems like DOOM is trying to win over women. And if you're thinking that might be incredibly out of character for DOOM... well, the trick is that DOOM is doing more by saying less, highlighting again the nuance that's always been present with his comic parallel. The women presented in these songs always seem a little rougher around the edges as he describes from his King Ghidra persona on 'Operation: Greenbacks' - or in the case of 'The M.I.C', he takes the time-tested woman-as-metaphor-for-hip-hop arc to show his complicated relationship and feelings towards the genre... although DOOM has also said that song is based partially off a real-life experience that got him in prison, and given the age of the girl mentioned in the song, I sincerely hope it's not implying that. But that's the other thing: even if songs like '?' feel like a sincere tribute to his late brother, who he does shout out on a few other songs across the album, there is an undercurrent of instability and violence on this project - 'The Finest' has him relish getting into the pit and knocking people flat, 'Red & Gold' highlights folks getting jumped, even 'Who You Think I Am' is a tribute to violent kaiju! And while a song like 'Hey!' will highlight the cartoon villainy on display, there's a darker unpredictability to his cadence and references that foretell exactly where he'd go in the years to come. And that's important to highlight: yes, this album is transitional and if you're used to DOOM as underground hip-hop's most unnerving, scattershot villain, you might be underwhelmed by how the brighter, jazzier tones don't quite mesh with him fully, but to me it reflects an underlying humanity that you wouldn't hear from DOOM in the same way - a more revealing glimpse behind the mask before it sealed into place.

All the same, while it's not MF DOOM's best album in his historic run, it's one that I personally really love, a project overstuffed with great interconnecting bars and experimentation but also having deceptive layers and a fair amount of emotive complexity. It's not MF DOOM the way many would come to see him, but it's an arc extremely well-told that has the diversity and flair to not feel overlong that I'd say for proper context of the artist is essential listening. And for me... light 9/10, the highest of recommendations, and considering the stage DOOM would set for years to come, absolutely a project worth remembering. And again, if you're looking for a great entry point into MF DOOM's story, it's a damn fine place to start.

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