The Power and the Peril: MF DOOM's Albums Ranked
A tribute summoned from the archives
I spent New Year’s Eve hoping against all hope that it’s not true, for this all to be part of MF DOOM’s wondrous plans. How could the Metal Faced Villain die? To consider such a thing is to try to get your head around the universe ending. A figure who felt timeless and eternal no longer resides in our dimension. The improbability of it all underlines the legend of a rapper who felt more mythos than man. In a shrinking world, DOOM was one of that last artists with true mystique. There’s no contemporary artist on his level who could seemingly hide their death for two months and absolutely nobody be surprised by that aspect of the tragedy.
Ponder the enigma for too long and you might lose sight of some uncomplicated truths: that DOOM will forever be the standard-bearer for rappers who pen internal rhyme patterns, who use pop culture references, who spit over cartoon loops. As a music writer, the impulse to describe what you hear as “DOOM-esque” is constant.
I can’t say much more right now. Writing about Prince in the immediate aftermath of his death was a tough experience, I don’t think I want to try it with another lost hero. (As fate had it, I was listening to DOOM when first found out that Prince had left us.) For now, I’m bringing back this album ranking I first posted in January 2017 on my old Kinja blog. At almost 4,000 words, it’s the most in-depth treatise on DOOM I’ve written. Because the only thing feels worth doing right now is trying to unpack those impossible rhymes.
The Power and the Peril
In a krazy world, all of us wear masks. Bright smiles and wide eyes veil the forbidden thoughts bubbling below the surface—and the demons that lurk further beneath. Super villains just take things one-step further. Binding a twisted piece of metal to your face hides the fractured personality within. There is power in the symbolism. You can’t hope to defeat an enemy you don’t understand.
For three long winters, the London-born, Long Island-brought-up Daniel Dumile dropped all pretense. The former Zev Love X had once kicked rhymes like a contortionist manipulates their body. As one-third of KMD, he cut classic New York rap music about black empowerment that the kids on Sesame Street could get down to. In an alternate universe, 1991’s Mr Hood makes him a mainstream rap star, he acts in John Singleton movies, and unveils new singles on Conan.
What comes next, though, is a tragedy that should be printed on liquor-soaked comic book paper and preserved forever in rap folklore for future generations. Dumile loses his brother and musical partner Subroc in 1993 when he’s hit by a car and killed crossing the Long Island Expressway. KMD are dropped by their label soon after, and second album, Black Bastards, is indefinitely shelved. Fractured, grief-stricken, and wounded by the industry, Dumile walks the earth, endures homelessness, vows revenge on his enemies, and, like a cast-in-iron phoenix rising from the ashes of flesh and bone, he emerges from the shadows as the chilling MF DOOM—a masked creation bound by Dr Doom doctrine and Phantom of the Opera mysticism.
DOOM’s grief turned to pain, turned to anger, turned to lunacy. This was underground hip-hop less abandoned subway car and more rumbling technodrome. His flow is among the most nimble and dexterous in rap history, bobbing and weaving like a heavyweight boxer you can’t lay a glove on. He’ll kick tongue-twisters over everything from dusty soul samples, to razor-sharp electronica, to Spider-Man loops and make it all sound ageless.
Trying to get a lock on DOOM is like trying to wrestle a waterfall, or nail jelly to the wall. This is a man who sends a legion of imposters to perform live gigs in his place, and frequently raps about himself in the third person. His body of work is just as slippery to grasp, coming as a series of joint collaborations and records under various monikers. Sometimes he releases albums close together, sometimes far apart. Sometimes he’ll barely rap on his own project. But it all adds up to one of the most singular, consistently brilliant catalogues in hip-hop—a discography forged from fractures shards of breakfast time cartoons and late night acid trips. Three-headed monsters and five-finger fists. Metal masks and iron gloves. Lactose and lecithin. Beats, blunts, and Bukowski. It’s a catalogue I’ll attempt to rack, stack, and contextualise here.
And yet, missing from the list are the near-mythical records DOOM has never completed. The Ghostface Killah collaboration Swift & Changeable. The Madvilliany sequel. Nobody ever really knows what the super villain is doing. We shouldn’t be trying to find out. All we need to know is he’s out there. Maybe he’s lurching through New York’s abandoned subway tunnels, or overlooking South London from a towering high-rise. Maybe he’s sailing around his hidden island sanctum, waiting for his next opportunity to strike. Maybe he’ll return as one-half of Danger Doom. Or as Viktor Vaughn, or King Gheedorah. Who knows. For now, let’s raise a cup to his spine-tingling adventures. Just don’t forget: when it’s DOOM, all caps when you spell the man’s name.
10. Viktor Vaughn: Venomous Villain (2004)
Venomous Villain feels less like a sequel to first Viktor Vaughn album, Vaudeville Villain, and more the DVD outtakes. Rumour has it that beatmakers were chosen for the project via an underground contest. Some do a good pretty good job—DiViNC and Swamburger’s “Fall Back-Titty Fat” smacks with the same electronic stomp as the best Vaughn stuff; Session 31’s midnight jazz on “Rap Game” is a good look for DOOM—but it’s indicative of the lack of care that went into the release. Even the audio collages, usually so dense and deliberate, sound rushed and slapdash.
Over the slight 35-minute running time, DOOM makes himself scarce. He provides none of the beats and, aside from the noteworthy Kool Keith collaboration “Doper Skiller”, too often passes the mic to substandard rhymers. One of the most interesting tracks doesn’t have any rapping at all. “Doom on Vik” sees Dumille do something he rarely does: drop all personas and speak (not rap) about his alter egos. But seeing as it’s pitched as a fully-functioning album, Venomous Villain feels like odds and ends of the Vik Vaughn era.
09. NehruvianDOOM: NehruvianDOOM (2014)
DOOM doesn’t seem the type to take on an apprentice. His movements are so liquid, so hard to follow, that banking on the super villain to take a young artist and lead from the front is about as likely as catching him in the same room as his oft-deployed imposters.
When teenage New York rapper Bishop Nehru ended up on a DOOM bill in London in 2013, though, the synergy was right for the veteran to get behind the boards on a project. Nehru is part of the seasoned rapper’s lineage. Like fellow disciples Earl Sweatshirt, Rejjie Snow, and Joey Badass, his flow is built on the same complex rhyme structures that stack syllables on syllables. And he already sounded great on “Lemon Grass”, an early mixtape cut that saw Nehru jack a DOOM instrumental that helped showcase all his strengths.
DOOM might put his hand on Bishop’s shoulder, but he hardly takes him under his wing. Rather than inspired to cut some fresh instrumentals, most of the beats on NehruvianDOOM are summoned up from his Special Herbs archives. They all sound great, of course, but it discloses his lack of interest in the project. And as talented as Bishop Nehru is, he just isn’t as good as his metal-faced mentor. The teenager’s wide-eyed approach to love song “Mean The Most” sounds sweet over the daytime gameshow-esque loops, but with only a handful of on-record appearance from the man himself, we’re left with a thirst for the real thing.
08. DANGER DOOM: The Mouse and the Mask (2005)
Animation has always been a huge component in the DOOM machine. Most of his records are peppered with cut-and-paste audio snippets from Saturday morning cartoons. Spliced together, they form a skewered origin story for the super villain—a chronicle built on internal monologues, graphic narratives and cereal box mythology. This fondness for the medium seemed to hit its zenith with The Mouse and the Mask, an album co-starring the characters of Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s block of late-night surrealist shows that pull in the stoners, weirdos or maybe just burned-out parents too jaded to change the channel after putting their kids to bed.
Who better to fully mine DOOM’s affinity for wacky cartoons than a producer who took the form of rodent-turned-British secret agent Danger Mouse? Fused together as DANGER DOOM, the beatmaker stacks pop culture references on snappy drums and dusty cinema loops with the irreverent tone and quick pace of an animated adventure. DOOM drops his own unofficial theme tune for Adult Swim’s flagship favourite on “ATHF (Aqua Teen Hunger Force),” while “Old School Rules” sees him rap over Keith Mansfield’s “Funky Fanfare”, probably best know for bookending cinema trailers back in the day. Danger Mouse’s ear for a pop song even forces choruses on the rapper, something he’d long avoided. Talib Kweli (“Old School”) and future Gnarls Barkley cohort Cee-Lo Green (“Benzie Box”) are invited to do the heavy lifting.
But the Adult Swim concept proves better in theory than execution. The rapper’s use of old cartoon dialogue had previously felt appropriate, as though every line was handpicked to slot comfortably into the DOOM canon. On The Mouse and the Mask, he’s trying to elbow his way past a small army of zany characters to get front-and-centre. The chemistry isn’t on-point and some of the gags are half-baked. And besides, DOOM’s never been “ha-ha” funny. His sense of humour is far more bitter, twisted, and idiosyncratic. Not even a nihilistic, anamorphic milkshake can pin it down.
07. JJ DOOM: Key to the Kuffs (2012)
DOOM’s always been the outlaw. He’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld stroking a cat in a hollowed-out volcano lair. He’s Krang rumbling through the underground through a myriad of hidden tunnels. The super villain has lived him life on the periphery, outside of the reach of a society that rejected him so brutally. In 2010, Daniel Dumille’s homeland very literally turned their back on him. A European tour left him stranded in the UK—the country of his birth—with visa issues cited as the reason for his American exile.
Fortifying himself in South London, DOOM hooked up with genre-bending Brooklynite producer Jneiro Jarel to form JJ DOOM. The result was a sound that bites like the British winter chill. Key to the Kuffs felt like a freshening up of the DOOM playbook. Not minded to appropriate the rapper’s familiar ethos, Jarel turned switched the dial from Saturday morning cartoons to late-night Friday hedonism. The offbeat samples were out, replaced with thick slabs of icy electronica. “Bite The Thong” is a darkened auditorium of lights and lasers. “Borin Convo” thunders into view like a diesel tanker, a forceful complement to DOOM’s ever-thickening voice.
On the tweaked-out “Banished,” Dumile addresses his enforced exile: “No, not deported/Be a little minute before things get sorted/Known to get money, never got caught kid/Escape with a soft skid, short bid.” How long he toiled on the margins is tough to say. DOOM raises his head above the surface too rarely to accurately map his movements. But even an evil genius must get homesick. A metal mask can’t protect you from the torment of being separated from those to whom you are closest. His career likely suffered to, the expulsion is theorized the have contributed to delaying the perpetually held-up Ghostface Killah collaboration record. But we do have Key to the Kuffs, a triumph in the face of adversity.
06. Born Like This (2009)
The first song proper on Born Like This, “Gazillion Ear,” ends with the declaration, “We have got try to find DOOM.” But it seems nobody, friend nor foe, can get a lock on the super villain when he goes to ground. When The Mouse and The Mask, his sixth record in two-and-a-half years, dropped in 2005, who could have predicated DOOM would spend four years off the grid completely?
After the childish lunacy of sharing the mic with the stars of Adult Swim, Born Like This was a more chiseled variant of DOOM, no longer known as Metal Face. His sense of humour became more oddball. His voice deepened, like he’d spent the four years hitting blunts and necking cognac. And the beats—courtesy of Jake One, Madlib, DOOM himself and the late J Dilla—smashed with the crunch of a knuckleduster to the jaw. The comic boxes and monster movies had been filed away, replaced by the writings of Bukowski, whose vision of a world where hospitals “are so expensive it’s cheaper to die” mirrored an outlook as hard as the stone mask that adorns the album’s cover.
His targets have rarely been as wide-spanning. DOOM criticizes military culture and structure over the svelte strings of “That’s That”. He mocks the auto-tune era on “Supervillainz” and lashes out at “candy corn crap rappers” on “Cellz.” On “Batty Boyz,” DOOM bizarrely attacks the homoeroticism that underpins the comic book heroes he’d so immersed himself in. Dumile would later lay the abhorrent views at the door of the jacked-up persona he was inhabiting. Still, it was villainy you couldn’t throw your support behind.
05. King Geedorah: Take Me To Your Leader (2003)
If Daniel Dumille had never picked up a mic, he’d be regarded as one of hip-hop’s finest beatmakers. That he rarely figures in that conversation is the tax he pays for being a supernatural emcee, and one that’s been pitted as the opposing counterbalance to the handful of producers that have enjoyed equal billing on his records—Madlib, Danger Mouse, Jneiro Jarel. Behind the boards, DOOM’s from the same lineage as Pete Rock, DJ Premier, Large Professor, and a dozen other New York golden age greats. But even the crate diggers with the grubbiest fingers haven’t tried filtering Twilight Zone loops and kids’ cartoon snippets into a sampler.
Released under the moniker King Geedorah—referencing King Ghidorah, a three-headed monster whose been grappling with Godzilla since the sixties—Take Me To Your Leader sees DOOM plays more cultivator than rap star. He produces every track but only appears on a handful, passing the mic over to his band of loyal followers who jostle for position in their ruler’s world vision. The Metal Face Villain chooses his people wisely. His on-record collaborators wield almost the same dark mystery, with few having resonated outside of his metal grip. They’re like loyal foot soldiers—the Rock Steady and Beebob to DOOM’s Shredder. Pawns on the master’s chessboard.
DOOM’s beats boom and thunder with kaiju movie drama. Take Me To Your Leader plays like the soundtrack to the Monster Island alluded to in the cut ‘n’ paste audio collage “Monster Zero.” “Fastline” is built around a wailing guitar line that hangs above the track like 150-meter reptilian monster stomping into view. The manic “No Snakes Alive” fizzes and squawks like a military bunker descending into panic.
Take Me To Your Leader also contains quaking moments of real pathos. Over doomed strings, rapper Gigan tries to navigate his way through this crazy thing called existence on the bitterly beautiful “Krazy World,” while Hassan Chop philosophizes on his life choices on “I Wonder” (“Best believe, many dudes was paid in my crew/ We made a name for ourselves boy I’ve seen some drama”). Throughout, DOOM’s touch proves as golden as that of King Midas. Despite largely staying in the control room, Take Me To Your Leader has his handprints all over it.
04. Operation: Doomsday (1999)
“Came back from five years laying and stayed the same,” raps MF DOOM on “Rhymes Life Dimes”. And yet, by 1999, everything had changed. Daniel Dumille, heavily grieving the loss of his brother Subroc in ‘93, and scorned by the industry he tried to navigate honourably, emerges from his dark exile with a maniacal new moniker to match the steel mask he’d don forever more.
Operation: Doomsday was the template. On his first solo joint, DOOM puts the concrete pillars of his methodology in place. There’s the heavy sampling of Marvel cartoon dialogue that forms a visceral narrative. The nerd-heavy flipbook of pop culture references, with DOOM nodding everything from Ferris Bueller, to Lex Luthor, to Riddick Bowe. Few choruses are provided to help guide newcomers through this brave new world. And there is the rapper’s shoot-the-lights-out flow, now gruffer than before, but transparent to the touch.
Yet the album is perhaps the brightest iteration of the evil genius’s bizarre vision. The squelchy beat on “Rhymes Like Dimes” hits like pure aural candy. Sampling Sade (“Doomsday”), Sos Band (“The Finest”), and The Deele (“Red and Gold”), DOOM gives the album some eighties contemporary pop sheen. And though Operation: Doomsday serves as a flag bearer for his new moniker, Dumile reveals more of himself than any record since. “Me and this mic is like yin and yang,” he raps on “Doomsday”, acknowledging the duality of his new Jekyll and Hyde existence. On “?”, a song that opens with DOOM finally donning the metal mask, he kisses the sky and tells Subroc, “everything is going according to plan, man.” This was the intersecting point between the light and dark. The origin story on which an epic would be built.
03. Mm.. Food (2004)
After five years shuffling through enough masks to make Zorro glare longingly into his own top drawer, MF DOOM dusts off his most famous guise on an album that sees his devious vision come through clearer than ever. Mm.. Food opens with the announcement that “Operation: Doomsday is complete” and ends with the Fantastic Four overthrowing the super villain’s rule. But for 46 minutes in between, the album lays out a world that bent the knee to this strange new ruler.
Mm.. Food is sonic tapestry of crashing cartoon dramatics and comicbook mythology, where a smorgasbord of food references serve as lyrical metaphors. It’s an album where an eight-minute spliced together cartoon sermon is as important as a three-verse song, and every idiosyncrasy long-absorbed into the DOOM mythos is magnified by ten.
Primarily self-produced, DOOM has never been better behind the boards. “Beef Rap” crashes home like a city-consuming tidal wave. The drum rolls on and soulful yelps on “One Beer” come in with a thump that would make most rappers walk slowly towards the studio door, never to return. Elsewhere, DOOM sinks into the freewheeling jazz keys of “Kon Karne” and bluesy guitar line of “Guinesses."“ There’s that lengthy run in the middle when he doesn’t even rap, instead shuffling through his repertoire of beats spliced with cut ‘n’ paste vocal collages. It’s wacky experimentation that holds up to repeated listens.
DOOM has rarely been this antagonistic. He shuts down vapid, image-first hip-hop on “Beef Rap” (“To all rappers: shut up with your shutting up/And keep your shirt on, at least a button-up Yuck”), while the madcap classic “Rap Snitch Knishes” sees him and long-time associate Mr Fantastik laugh at emcees who lay out their hoodlum business on wax. He scorns normal human relationships on “Deep Fried Frenz” (Mom, dad, comrade, peeps, brothers, sisters, duns, dunnies/Some come around when they need some money”) because when you’re a super villain, who has time for regular mates? Those are the thoughts that go on below the bone and metal that protect DOOM’s twisted mind. Mm.. Food offers the clearest reading of his manifesto. If DOOMtopia exists, Mm...Food is your direct flight.
02. Viktor Vaughn: Vaudeville Villain (2003)
Having rumbled into Earth’s view in his mammoth moving fortress on Operation: Doomsday and Take Me To Your Leader, Daniel Dumile dons a trench coat and hat and lurks New York’s back alleys incognito under the guise of Viktor Vaughn (a play on Dr Doom’s government name, Victor Von Doom). Vaudeville Villain ditches DOOM’s dreams of world domination. Instead, we get drug deals that went awry (“The Drop”), dust-ups with Chinese restaurant owners (“Raedawn”), smack-talking back room poetry slams (“Open Mic Night, Pt. 1”, “Open Mic Night, Pt. 2”), and glimpses into the super villain’s sexual proclivities (“Let Me Watch”).
Vik takes you to school on “Modern Day Mugging”. It’s “Ten Crack Commandments”, if Biggie had been more interested in quick $100 scores than stacking millions. DOOM lays out the ideal stick up victim, advises against drinking on the job and warns of senior citizens “who’ll bust their guns too”. How much of his advice you take is on you.
It all adds up to the most visceral glimpse at what goes on when DOOM’s boots hit the pavement, as though he needed to step off the widescreen to snap clearly into focus. His narratives are at their most fully-formed. The beats—served up by relatively lesser-known producers King Honey, Max Bill and Heat Sensor—hit like a winter’s chill, and the DOOM’s gripping character comes through more clearly than ever.
01. Madvillain: Madvillainy (2004)
Madlib and DOOM. Is there a more mythologised producer-rapper duo? The bohemian beatmaker and deity emcee go together like Snoopy and Woodstock, or rum and coke. It’s a supernatural connection that comes once a millennium, when the stars align, the elements are just right, and the weed burns unnaturally long. Rap was it its lowest point in the mid-noughties (“hip-hop is dead” and all that) and we needed an age of heroes to clean the streets and banish the pretenders. What we got was a couple of mad villains. Two of America’s most blunted.
Back in 2000, Marvel Comics challenged its brightest minds to create a whole new universe that would rewrite their superheroes in brave new ways. Like that, Madvillainy feels like a reimagining of the DOOM mythos in the hands of a genius that understood every tick of what made the rapper one of the best artists to walk any planet. The first few seconds of opener “The Illest Villains” even sounds like a spiral into another dimension. In this alternative universe, DOOM doesn’t live in the shadows. Like its cover, Madvillainy sees the super villain so far in your face, you can taste the metal in your mouth.
This is what happens when genius loves company. When Superman and Bizarro come together to smoke weed in the Los Angeles sun. Madlib was a leader from the old school and Stones Throws Record’s great hope who eschewed rap’s fashionable sounds to fuck around with the Blue Note back catalogue. He rarely produced for others, preferring to tinker with the beats alongside J Dilla, his other great spiritual comrade, and manipulate his own rap vocals under the moniker Quasimodo. But DOOM was on his bucket list and it’s easy to see why. There was hardly a rap producer in the world with the lateral thinking to create the rumbling hum of “Accordion” or the tweaked-out, rickety “Raid,” just like there was hardly a rapper on the planet mad enough to try reining them in.
Madvillainy is every ounce of DOOM’s twisted mythos forced into a meat grinder. Half the tracks don’t hit the two-minute mark yet nothing feels sketch-like or incomplete. Lib constantly shuffles through his deck of thick, grubby beats, while DOOM turns his voice down an octave to sync up with their vibrating intensity. This is music with soul in its DNA. A crate-digging classic as timeless as a subway tile.
DOOM’s one-liners thump home like a strong left jab, while the pop culture references come in swarms. On the laidback “Great Days,” he references everything from Kurt Angle to Pinky and The Brain. “Curls” recalls an adolescents spent hiding dro in his drawer, Moet in his flask, and keeping his mom in the dark about where the money was coming from. On closer “Rhinestone Cowboy,” DOOM akes center-stage, accepts the ovation from his beloved audience, and drops lines like “Goony goo goo loony cuckoo like Gary Gnu off New Zoo Revue,” just to show he can. After years hiding from the world, he’s finally in the spotlight—the bright lights glittering off polished metal.
Fans thirst for a sequel have been as unquenchable as Madlib’s himself, who without being able to track down his great collaborator resorted to remixing Madvillainy. Maybe a reunion will happen, maybe it won’t. No one really knows when it comes to DOOM. The only sure things are the records we already have. They’re hymns by an ill-fated Orpheus, scripture penned by an omniscient Galactus. Preserve them for future generations to cherish, because the world will always need a villain to route for.