Daniel Dumile has worn a variety of aliases and identitites over the course of his unique, lengthy career, evolving in fits and starts from black-nationalistic boom-bap (KMD’s Mr. Hood) to hermetically sealed pot worship (Madvillain’s Madvillainy), to cartoon-assisted hooliganism (Dangerdoom’s The Mouse and the Mask). For his reentry into the rap game after three and a half years of near-complete silence, the enigmatic MC known most recently as MF Doom has dropped the initials from the front of his name and flagged the rest in audacious all-caps. Given the boldness of the new DOOM moniker, the length of his recording drought, and the Andy-Kaufman-esque antics of 2007, when the Internet swirled with rumors that a mask-wearing impostor—and not the rapper himself—was appearing at MF Doom shows and lip-synching over prerecorded vocals, his new record, Born Like This, wants to be received as a true event.
Taking its title from a Charles Bukowski poem, “Dinosauria, We,” which is quoted in full at the beginning of the track “Cellz,” Born Like This stands out from other DOOM-related projects in that it cultivates a palpably dark mood. Up until now, DOOM was always ready with punchlines galore; he was the rare rapper willing to make fun of himself for the sake of a joke. On Born Like This, there’s been a bit of a shift toward seriousness, though one hardly gets the feeling that DOOM has suddenly entered the Jay-Z school of self-importance. Songs like “Absolutely,” which revolves around the truism “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” “Rap Ambush,” which transports the rap battle to a firefight between local insurgents and out-matched soldiers, and “Cellz,” with its apocalyptic and menacing tone, rub up against more typical DOOM free-associative conventions. The whispery, Madlib-helmed production “Absolutely” is probably the strongest of this trio, and “Rap Ambush” is an entertaining execution of admittedly unambitious conceit. But still, few people were expecting DOOM to return as an angry granddad, and even fewer will think these songs represent a worthwhile transformation.
Fortunately DOOM is unable to completely shake off his own best and worst habits, and so Born Like This contains its fair share of the rapper’s classic screwball set pieces. These are the ones most likely to become part of the underground canon. As a rapper who bragged of selling “rhymes like dimes” on his first solo outing, DOOM is often at his best when he throws meaning out the window in pursuit of mellifluous combinations of mimicking syllables, and the best tracks here are little more than strenuous rhyming workouts. “More Rhymin” goes exactly as its title suggests: “He talked to himself when he need someone to hate on/The black McCain campaign negative debateathon” is a representative couplet, complete with internal rhymes and mildly confusing pop-cultural references. “Microwave Mayo” is about…who knows what it’s about, besides the fact DOOM spits breathlessly for two and a half minutes over a snaky organ line and old-school drum pats. Arguably the twin highlights of the album, “Gazillion Ear” and “Lightworks” each highjack dusty old J-Dilla beats to warpy perfection. The former is a siren-saturated, stream-of-conscious mind-fuck. The latter features an eerie female jazz vocal snippet and a scaling xylophone figure while DOOM welcomes the listener to the “octagon layer” and threatens a “defeat corner Rawanda.”
Although I can’t say I agree with them, there is a segment of the hip-hop listenership that claims DOOM to be a better producer than rapper. Maybe for them did he include the three tracks on Born Like This that serve as showcases for MCs other than himself. “Supervillainz” gives old underground hands Kurious, Slug, and Mobonix ample space to relive their glory days, newcomer Empress Sharah performs respectably on “Still Dope,” and Raekwon gives Wu-heads further grist for the fantasy record that is Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II. If DOOM was really planning to make a statement with Born Like This, though, one can’t see how he justified including these filler tracks or “Angelz,” the Ghostface collaboration that has been circulating on the Internet since 2006, when it was included on a compilation released by the record label Nature Sounds. In its unnecessary guest spotlights, reworking of old material, and seemingly tossed-of lyrical brilliance, Born Like This sort of resembles a Lil’ Wayne mixtape, except that where Wayne takes three months to release a mixtape, DOOM took three years to release this album.
And therein lies the exquisite difficulty of Born Like This. Because really, why quibble with something that has been anticipated for so long? The album brings DOOM, warts and all, back into our lives, and shouldn’t that be enough? Well, if you spent the last three years not really worrying whether the guy was retired or on extended hiatus, just hoping that some interesting scuzz-bucket batch of bizarro rhymes would appear at some point in the future, Born Like This is probably enough, maybe even more than enough. If, on the other hand, you saw Madvillainy, MM…Food, Vaudeville Villain, and others as interlocking pieces in an as-yet-unfilled hip-hop prophecy, and DOOM as the last, best hope of the proudly underground, it will be hard to see the album has anything other than a disappointment.