Born Like This

(Lex; 2009)

By Clayton Purdom | 26 March 2009

Used to be, you couldn’t turn around without spotting MF Doom. Let’s not even get started on Adult Swim, but the guy was spitting verses, narrating, recycling beats all over our shit for about 60% of this decade, with a drawn nine year career heading into the millennium. Used to be there was too much MF Doom. We got used to him: his doofy flow, his graceful nerdiness. When he vanished after MM..Food? (2004) we missed the presence but didn’t quite realize what that presence was, couldn’t explicate the contour and shape of this thing that had left us. Most of us got real caught up in the Clipse around this point, and retired our affection for Daniel Dumile with all the ceremony of a hooded sweatshirt deemed unfit for further wear.

But Born Like This, forty minutes of unfiltered DOOM (pronounced “Doom”), proves through example just what we’d had—what, it turns out, we still do have, maybe moreso. One would assume that after such vaunted prolificacy the return would contain no pointless slack, and indeed even DOOM’s signature vintage vocal samples come in dense blasts here, popping off each other bright as sparks. It’s a tight record, unencumbered by hooks or skits, beats bursting apart after a minute of flow and reassembling in a bioelectric flash brand new, flow unhitched, anticipating the beats’ rambunctiousness. DOOM sounds like he spit the entire record in one take. He pauses for breath for a few good looks from Raekwon and Empress Sharhh, maybe drink some Gatorade and then hops right back on the mic with more shit to prove. It is a thoroughly one-man affair; it is focused and intentional, consciously produced hip-hop.

But, decidedly, not conscious hip-hop. Midway through one of his best records and fifteen years into a vibrant and multifarious career, DOOM spits a clipped and stupid flow of unprecedented (for him) nastiness, a slipshod ramshackle fuck-you’s worth of homophobia. It has some friends upset. In the CMG clubhouse, some look at it as a dealbreaker—the hate comes too real, maybe. We batted around Birth of a Nation and Born Like This’ open Bukowski influence and left the matter unsettled. I will concede that “Batty Boyz” leaves little room for textual analysis; it’s icky, blunt, unambiguously disdainful. Which leaves exactly two possibilities: either fifteen years into this vibrant and multifarious career, one which has from name-on been infused with a quirky humanism (the skeleton key, if you weren’t aware, from earlier “Ballskin”: “He wears a mask so when he dons his face / Each and every race could absorb the bass”), he has suddenly turned into Beanie Man and just! hates! the gays!…or maybe we shouldn’t take a track about superheroes sucking each other’s cocks at face value.

Maybe, like everything else in this man’s discography, there’s more at work here. The track’s first half is harsh, no doubt, talking about bleeding asses and manpurses with a venom we couldn’t have predicted from this generally genial emcee. On the other hand, its ultimate impression is one not of hate but of a strange exasperation, like sucking each other’s cocks was a recent trend overrunning the superhero community and DOOM’s stuck with his hands up, like, “Guys, let’s suck cock after we handle our superhero duties.” He sounds left out, the only straight guy around, lonely on a Friday night. Or maybe it’s a knee-jerk against Adult Swim pigeonholing; maybe he’s kicking at his designation as a conscious emcee, regardless of how well he’s tailored himself to fit this bill. He is, after all, the consummate underground emcee, the critic’s heartthrob. Critics—a term that I essentially use to describe Cokemachineglow’s readership at this point—want to love him; he pushes our nerdy buttons. So better, let’s agree at least, that DOOM exorcise whatever demons “Batty Boyz” represents via this single track than go Ghostface on us, abandon his art and his soul entirely for glib Snoop Dogg self-caricature in an attempt to break out of the critical—and, importantly for Ghost, the financial—underground.

Were this Ghostface or Dizzee Rascal, lauded emcees who are still “allowed” by the critical and public consciousness to embrace hip-hop’s uglier sentiments, would we give a fuck about a single track like this? (Especially if, like “Batty Boyz,” it fits all technical requirements of a banger?) Truth is, the cut is shocking—if it didn’t bother me I wouldn’t spend two paragraphs justifying it—but it doesn’t matter. Doom’s is a cartoon universe and it contains within it a panoply of characters, of giant snakes and intergalactic wars and alter egos and at its heliocentric core, the heatsource for all these wild fantasias, bright suns of still-hurt and of depression and of racism. Along the way, I guess: some cock-sucking superheroes. I throw my hands up. Born Like This is too good to quibble with; it beats my reservations. It is both an outright refutation of hip-hop (see: the Autotune obliteration on “Supervillianz”) and a validation of the places it still has to go (see: the Dadaist drum programming also on “Supervillianz”), just as it seeks to reconstruct MF Doom as DOOM while still reinforcing everything a Doom/DOOM record ought to be: garish, tight, cartoony, loopy, packed so thick with pummeling syllable play that most of the listener’s brain is oatmeal by record’s end, linking their dinky words in boorish imitation.

I have abandoned Swift & Changeable, the dream that was the MF Doom/Ghostface collaboration. Maybe it’ll come out, maybe it won’t. I have no interest in what Ghostface might bring from DOOM, because on Born Like This DOOM seems to be staring Supreme Clientele (2000) directly in its swirling head of eyes, not imitating but working wholly within its spirit, unashamedly: the entirely singular artistic expression of an emcee through a rubble of wordplay, punchlines packed so closely they become one stream, one thought without direct source. Up through “Angelz” the record is unparalleled in DOOM’s catalogue: as forward-thinking as Madvilliany (2004) but more fun; as variegated as King Geedorah (2003) but wilder via DOOM’s lyrical resurgence; as lyrically spot-on as the Viktor Vaughn records but pushed tighter by the fervent and nightmarish production. The record splits at the seams afterward (God, when DOOM finally drops in on “Cellz”), loses its shit with absolute finality on “Supervillianz” but staggers autistically forward a few minutes longer. I’m still not exactly sure what space it was that DOOM vacated a couple years ago to create this beast. The other kids—Pusha, Wayne, Lupe, whoever—can fight over “best.” But in this return he’s filled his abdicated spot with greater authority than ever before, patched up the walls punched in from Ghostface’s temper tantrums and assured us that villian-rap’s appeal will remain evergreen as long as it is infused with this genius, this wild idiocy, these manic flights of syllabic invention. Prolificacy can get fucked if patience nets us hip-hop like this.