For better or worse, I’m feeling very American lately, which is almost certainly a direct result of watching the political conventions that took place last week. As a result, reviewing this record has felt very similar to the process behind making any educated political decision. As with any political issue, I like to get all the facts out on the table in front of me before reaching my final conclusion. So let’s quickly re-hash the things we know about the enigma that is (formerly MF) DOOM.
Never one for stagnancy, DOOM, born Daniel Dumile, has taken on a variety of pseudonyms over the years (Viktor Vaughn, King Geedorah, etc.). He seems to be quite fond of his signature metal mask, and some very unlikely production. Sometimes he doesn’t like to show up to his concerts, sending an impersonator in his stead. He’s owner to one of the most unconventionally stellar flows in the underground scene, and just about anywhere you go you’re bound to find a member of his cult following. But what do we really know about DOOM? The man lives his life behind a mask literally and figuratively, and any explanation Dumile is bound to be fraught with mere speculation. DOOM is a very mysterious figure for the most part.
So it should come as no surprise that Keys To The Kuffs is more than a little esoteric. And while it mainly sports the same sparse, frenetic production that DOOM has become known for in recent years, there is a lot of new ground covered over the course of the album’s forty-two minutes.
Jneiro Jarel (the JJ portion of JJ DOOM, presumably) does his most interesting work to date, not only providing the bulk of the album’s production, but slinging blistering rhymes on tracks like “Dawg Friendly,” one of the choicer cuts on the album. His minimalistic beats fit hand in glove with DOOM’s seemingly endless arsenal of peculiar poetry, and from track to track, it’s never clear where the dynamic duo might head next. It keeps the listener guessing in a generally positive way.
It’s being said that this is DOOMs “homage to the UK,” which sounds reasonably true considering that much of the album was recorded in London and its samples often include voice-overs from strange bits of British dialogue. Fold in quips about Cockney Rhyming Slang and two very high-profile collaborations with some of the UK’s most respected artists, Damon Albarn of Blur/Gorillaz and Beth Gibbons of Portishead, and it starts to look more and more like a shout out to our great motherland over the pond. But that’s not to say there’s really any definitive theme present. As he is prone to doing, DOOM jumps from idea to idea at an almost neck-breaking speed that is often times very tough to follow.
With so much deviation afoot, Keys lacks that sense of continuity required to keep the listener’s undivided attention. There are instrumental tracks and segments of songs on the record that are absolutely unnecessary, and ultimately act as sonic obstacles preventing it from ever really flourishing for more than just a few brief minutes at a time. But when it does flourish, it’s some of the most solid work DOOM has done in recent years, and certainly some of the best that Jarel has ever participated in.
The obvious standout among the tracks is “Rhymin’ Slang,” where DOOM spits with a familiar, rejuvenated ferocity, which he does with regularity throughout the album. “Can’t trust the tap water much less the kettle/ Double entendre to the phrase test your mettle/ The rest’ll settle, just to get fed well/ As the livin’ dead infect the red cell” he raps emphatically on the Beth Gibbons featured track, “GMO,” completely in his element. The other big collaboration, “Bite the Thong,” sees an all too brief cameo from Damon Albarn, but has all the charm of an early Gorillaz castoff. Jarel and Dumile experience a tangible synergy at times, with Jarel’s beats standing their ground next to some of DOOM’s most impressive rhymes.
The pair really hit their unified stride on “Retarded Fren” and “Wash Your Hands,” and it’s moments like those that make you realize just why this collaboration came to fruition in the first place. The artists truly feed off one another in a very productive, symbiotic way.
In sum, Keys to the Kuffs is nothing groundbreaking, but it certainly warrants a few thorough listens. Some genuinely innovative production multiplied by DOOM’s erratic, yet smooth lyricism makes for a solid experience, albeit an experience made somewhat difficult by some filler tracks. It’s not the best collaboration album he’s put forth, but it’s far from the worst. DOOM feels at home on this record, in an aesthetic of production he’s become very comfortable with and really quite good at. It’s fun to revel in his success. But the album’s not just about our favorite metal-faced villain; Jneiro Jarel handled the spotlight with dignity. Keep your eyes peeled for Jarel in the future, as DOOM sort of has a way of propelling his collaborators into further fame (see: Danger Mouse, Madlib).