JJ DOOM – Key to the Kuffs
So it might not be the DOOM collaboration that the world is most anticipating, with the Ghostface Killah collaboration album still little more than a wish, but in 2012 any Daniel Dumile release is an event.
Announced earlier this year, with a few tracks surfacing in the meantime, Key to the Kuffs is a collaboration with producer Jneiro Jarel and DOOM handling vocals on most tracks. Jarel favours electronic beats with a hint of Flying Lotus influence or the out-of-step quality of producers like Shlomo as opposed to the sample-heavy boom-bap of earlier DOOM. When the emcee does spit over a subdued, brooding sample-based track like ‘Guv’nor’ there’s a hint of the insular darkness that Madlib brought to the table on Madvillainy, but the instrumentals on Key to the Kuffs are largely different to previous releases.
The shift is most striking on tracks like ‘Banished’ where DOOM’s typically measured and deliberate flow picks up the pace to match the nippy, grime-inspired low-end synths. ‘Rhymin Slang’ is built on what would otherwise be an electro-rock instrumental. One of the more immediate tracks on the album, it contains some of Key to the Kuffs most blatant references to British culture, a recurring theme on the album. But outside of the skit intro, complete with comic cockney samples, and a Big Fat Gypsy Weddings simile, the Anglo-fixation in the lyrics doesn’t run as deeply as the comic book aspects of any DOOM record, and given the stereotypical lightness of tone this isn’t a bad thing – we are spared “DOOM does Covent Garden”.
The effect of Blighty on the London-born New York emcee better manifests itself in both the choice of electronic beats, cameos from Damon Albarn and Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, and the loose backstory of DOOM being refused entry back into the US after travelling on a UK visa. How much of a passport control nightmare Daniel Dumile had to endure is unclear, but after all the problems at the Border Agency this year it’s entirely possible that DOOM’s vocals were recorded from a dark corner of the duty free at Terminal 5. And considering the bother surrounding attempts to deport Abu Qatada, the Home Secretary might like to know that DOOM is the most dangerous man on the planet, he said so himself. One can only assume that ‘Bout the Shoes’ was written with Theresa May in mind.
At 42 minutes and with most tracks falling within four minutes Key to the Kuffs is structurally similar to 2009’s Born Like This, concise while covering a lot of ground. Guest verses from Khujo Goodie and Boston Fielder get their own tracks, while the aforementioned contributions from Damon Albarn and Beth Gibbons occupy fairly innocuous spaces within Jarel’s beats. The Gorillaz frontman in particular only delivers a handful of syllables on ‘Bite the Thong’. Though letting his presence overwhelm the track into a hip-hop ‘Parklife’ would have been crass, the contribution as it stands is pretty inconsequential seeing that you really have to listen to be convinced that he’s there at all. Gibbons is spectral and distant on ‘GMO’ though not wasted. She doesn’t make the track but she slots into it; a feature and not a hook, on an album that eschews choruses, from a rapper that has always bypassed the kind of instant appeal catchiness where the emcee’s role is simply to say words while you wait for Rihanna to show up in the chorus and say something enthusiastic about buggery.
DOOM’s consistency as a rapper is still a sure thing on Key to the Kuffs, opening his first bar with: “Catch a throatful from the fire vocal / Ash and molten glass like Eyjafjallajökull / The volcano out of Iceland / To conquer and destroy the rap world like the white man”. His gravelly monotone both emphasizes and down-plays the complexity of his flows, and there are still very few lyricists in hip-hop that employ such casual linguistic dexterity for the sake of a serious point, for absurdity itself or for no reason at all. It would be easy to say DOOM is on autopilot now we’ve got around to the eighth full-length that he’s fronted as a solo artist, but though his delivery is familiar it’s no less sharp or distinctive.
Tracks like ‘Banished’, ‘Rhymin Slang’ and the chiming, twinkling boom-bap of ‘Retarded Fren’ will be first to hit all the expected buttons of a new DOOM release, but ‘Winter Blues’, a veritable love song, is destined to a be watershed moment in his career. Jarel’s piano and strings bypass maudlin and Dumile’s lyrics offer a more yearning element to his UK exile as well as the obligatory revelation that even supervillains need some tenderness once in a while (a hearty meal too but that was covered extensively on 2004’s Mm..Food).
It might be the case that Key to the Kuffs isn’t a major DOOM release and its themes might not be as consistent as the Madvillain or Dangerdoom collaborations, but it holds together sonically and through the continuing quality of the verses. And it’s that quality that keep his releases as anticipated now as they were over a decade ago. Jarel’s beats aren’t as distinctive and assured as Madlib’s or as wacky as DOOM’s own, but they’re strong enough to tie the guest tracks together with a new sound and without a clash of styles.
Like a life, a career of solid and distinctive hip-hop records is what happens while you wait around for a Ghostface collaboration and Key to the Kuffs shouldn’t be overshadowed by the spectre of records that don’t yet exist.