Following yet another extended period of silence, the much-beloved underground rap craftsman known as MF DOOM has finally returned with a new album. And while it’s not the one we’ve been waiting for (highly anticipated joint efforts with Madlib and Ghostface still await completion nearly six years after being announced), Key to the Kuffs, a collaboration between DOOM (a.k.a. Daniel Dumile) and producer Jneiro Jarel, is a welcome addition to the Supervillain canon.
Decades deep into his career, Dumile hasn’t lost a step lyrically. His raspy-voiced rhymes even appear to be gaining depth and complexity without sacrificing anything in flow or entertainment value. His delivery remains as fluid as ever, as evidenced by the bouncy “Banished” and smooth-paced “Winter Blues.” But those glorious moments of lively verse come all too scarcely on an album that runs only 42 minutes with too many skits, interludes, and guest spots.
Such a dearth of DOOM tends to put more scrutiny on what’s actually here, though, allowing his immensely thoughtful bars the close attention they deserve. As usual, his pun-riddled, tongue-twisting raps may require repeat listens to fully comprehend, but this adds immense replay value to his songs. “Retarded Fren” might take several spins before one finally wraps their head around the frozen image in the line “Cold and stiff/Hold the -iff.” He doesn’t waste any time letting us know he’s still the most creative and colorful writer in hip-hop, as his very first line on the album incorporates “Eyjafjallajökull,” the name of the Icelandic volcano that wrought havoc when it erupted two years ago.
The U.K.-born, U.S.-reared Dumile was denied reentry into the States after a European tour in 2010 and has lived the life of an exile in London ever since. Thus, some noticeable elements of British culture seep their way into the album, but the effects of his sojourn away from home are felt most strongly on “Winter Blues.” Over Jarel’s soft strings and keys, an unusually melancholic Dumile mixes multiple metaphors that express his longing to feel his woman’s skin again. It’s quite possible we’ve never heard a more heartfelt line from the metal-masked bard than “We could live forever like Henrietta Lacks’s cells.”
The DOOM of the last two albums has indeed taken a turn toward more serious songs, and here the dramatic jeremiad “GMO” serves as the grim centerpiece of the album. Through three verses, with effectively creepy violin accompaniment and Portishead’s Beth Gibbons providing haunting background vocals in between, Dumile cleverly outlines the dystopian horrors of modern biotechnology. Despite the song’s grave tone, he assures, “Better off with a good sense of humor/Research, know what’s the truth instead of rumor.” “Wash Your Hands,” a quintessential DOOM track, sends the album off on a more comical, light-hearted note, with Dumile issuing an exaggerated warning to club-dwellers about the ubiquity of infectious diseases over Jarel’s parody of pop-rap beats: “Villain brings his own mug to the bar/And wore gloves till he go back to the car.”
Jarel does an admirable job of holding up his end of the bargain, especially on his remix of “Retarded Fren,” which, with its rapidly roaring cacophony of xylophone chimes, strings, nighttime jungle noises and thumping drums, is hands down the most powerful track on the album. But while our first glimpse of DOOM in three years is certainly a satisfying one, it’s just not nearly enough, and doesn’t quite match the sustained heights achieved on Madvillainy or even The Mouse and the Mask.