JJ DOOM - Keys to the Kuffs
"I'm an uncle, so I think that's how the character comes across. He's friendly, but every once in a while he might talk your ear off. But he still cool." The words that come out of DOOM's mouth - and the fact that they do so from behind a metal mask inspired by the Fantastic Four's arch-nemesis - are unlike those of most, if any, other rappers.
Sure, he cops to the early influence of KRS-One and Public Enemy, but his lyrics have grown to be socially conscious in an oblique way. Sure, his penchant for sampling dialogue from obscure TV and films has been half-inched by Wu Tang and countless imitators from his first project, KMD. His audience is one "weaned on LPs, live albums, and rarities collections, not radio singles, mixtapes, and club play." Where else would you find Damon Albarn singing the chorus to a (brilliant) track called 'Bite the Thong'?
DOOM's uniqueness spawned an awesome pedigree and lead to him working the likes of Ghostface Killah, Dangermouse, and, on Keys to the Kuffs, Beth Gibbons of Portishead (on the suitably eerie 'GMO') and, on production duties, Jneiro Jarel, a man who puts DOOM's rogues gallery of aliases, side-projects and big-name collaborators to shame.
Keys to the Kuffs, as with the best DOOM albums, provides a solid centre for the rappers' esoteric, stream-of-consciousness turns of phrase - given in a laconic-beyond-Biggie style - and for Jarel's peerless production to orbit: Following a recent UK tour (he was born in London but raised in Long Island), DOOM was denied to return to the US, so holed up in the studios of Lex Records to make this album, which gives him a whole other set of reference points.
It's the Anglo angle that sets this apart from previous, similarly idiosyncratic DOOM records as he references the likes of Channel 4 "documentary" 'My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding', Jarel opens proceedings with a sound collage of snippets of Dickensian orphans' dialogue from various film and TV adaptations, and the stand-out track is called 'Rhymin' Slang'.
It takes a few tracks for Jarel's production to become distinct from past DOOM collaborators such as Madlib, all about the dropped beats and jazz organ sounds: It's on 'Rhymin'...' that he hits upon his own groove, a mix of IDM time signatures and electronics, the R&S distant hum of moodiness mixed with the incessant buzz and rumbling bass of the Big Smoke, the importance of the breakbeat inherited from DOOM's own East Coast heritage, bolstered by some carefully-deployed samples, including snippets of polemic and news reports on skin colour (on 'Winter Blues') and, at the end of the album, gun control. Again: how many modern hip-hop albums have that? (Besides the rapper's Born Like This)
DOOM remains a true original, and the selection of Jnerio Jarel has a sense of 'takes one to know one'. A surprising - if unsurprisingly accomplished - entry into the pantheon of modern, intelligent underground hip-hop.