What if Mozart and Haydn had joined forces to compose a symphony? What if William Goldman and Martin Scorsese had made a film, or Grant and Lee had fought on the same side? To hear underground hip-hop fans tell it, the collaboration between DJ Dangermouse and MF Doom was sure to be as legendary a work of dual-genius as any of those hypothetical pairings. But hype is hype, and an album “inspired by Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s popular late-night animation” could hardly be expected to live up, right? Well, yeah. But damn if The Mouse and the Mask doesn’t come pretty close.
There are no grand designs here, no life lessons (except that 99% of rappers would do well to take themselves 3000% less seriously). Doom’s languorous, catchphrase-laden flow is more concerned with Judy Jetson’s underwear preference than with the troubles of the world. Those familiar with his Madvillainy work know that Doom revels in unexpected allusions and clever tropes, and his lyrics here are no exception. Only this time he gets to reference Adult Swim’s shows directly, for inside-joke value: “’Ey yo, I know this dude, right?/Carl. He wore tight blue sweats, but wasn’t glued too tight/All he had upstairs was a crude light/If ya think that’s weird: he lived next door to a food fight.” The beauty of Doom’s technique is that even if you don’t get the references, the lyrics sound so absurd that you’re bound to crack up anyway.
For his part, Dangermouse interlaces Doom’s lead with an impressive amalgam of beats, samples, and crazy-ass cameos from Adult Swim’s characters. Half the time you don’t know whether to bust out laughing or just gawk in amazement at the technical prowess behind The Mouse and the Mask’s slick production. Mouse also brings along some once-and-future collaborators; the album features guest appearances from Ghostface Killah, Talib Kweli, and Cee-Lo, all of whom do themselves a good turn with genuinely fun contributions sans the usual self-aggrandizement.
Of course, it’s tough to toe the concept album line while keeping things fresh throughout, and The Mouse and the Mask does have its weak spots. Tracks like “A.T.H.F.” and “Basket Case” are so heavily reliant on Adult Swim references that those unfamiliar with the shows will want to listen with Google at the ready. Also, Mouse sometimes gets so virtuosic with the panels that he ends up taking away from the lyrics, defeating the purpose of a song (or portion thereof). But these are minor quibbles, really, easily outweighed by the record’s numerous strong points.
Another gripe is that The Mouse and the Mask is some kind of frivolity, that “real” rappers don’t cut records about cartoons. But these days, it seems as if most “real” rappers are only allowed to write about three “issues”: 1) how great they are, 2) how much of a punk you are, and/or 3) how much George Bush hates Black people. Such narrow lyrical scope has ended up as ammunition for flak cannons, who snipe that modern hip-hop is unoriginal, negative, and ultimately limited as an art form. The Mouse and the Mask, while it may not be answering life’s questions, is an enjoyable and highly original achievement that should help to blunt such criticism. And its sheer fun-loving silliness is certain to put a smile on the face of even the dourest “rap is dead” doomsayer. And that is no frivolity.