The Mouse and the Mask

back before Ashton Kutcher ever punk’d his first weepily entitled post-pubescent celeb, the incomparable Method Man and Redman blazed the trail (amongst other things) for MTV-approved hijinks with their short-lived prank show Stung.

One stunt in particular involved luring Ludacris into the studio under the auspices of recording a collaboration with the doped duo, then handing Luda a purposefully atrocious, janky-ass beat and asking him to spit on top of it, acting all the while like said beat was the hottest shit.

A priceless setup, but perhaps funniest of all, Luda actually sounded pretty damn tight atop the sabotaged track. I guess it shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise considering he is one of the five or ten best rappers alive, but it serves to illustrate my point, which is this—MF Doom would’ve gotten stung like a motherfucker had he been in Luda’s place.

Most great emcees get by not just on clever rhymes and punchlines, but often more compellingly by the intensity and impact of their delivery and performance. Even a walking joke-a-day calendar like Ludacris can still pwn a beat without giving The Source any quotables, while the richly layered vocal legacies of Snoop, Rakim, and B-Real arguably outweigh their contributions to hip-hop’s lyrical canon.

In the AA minor league world of indie-rap (and I’m being generous here), Doom’s already a perennial all-star, which obscures the fact that he’s not a traditionally outstanding emcee, relying almost solely on the cleverness and creativity of his bon mots, rarely ripping a track unless his verse is laced with memorable quips and catch-phrases.

What’s more, Doom’s a man with a pretty well-defined milieu, and if a beat’s not in his wheelhouse he’ll most likely strike out swinging. The messy, blowed-out bass and outsized sci-fi samples of Doom’s King Geedorah and Viktor Vaughn records, as well as his instant classic collabo with Madlib on last year’s Madvillainy, proved the perfect foil to Doom’s grimy monotone flow. Rather than let Doom ride atop the beat, Madlib wisely erected a woozy, cacophonous wall of sound, which Doom expertly searched for cracks where he could pour out his wonderfully elliptical streams of warped consciousness.

As an unapologetic Metal Face fanboy, I racked my brain for weeks trying to figure out what was amiss with The Mouse and the Mask, Doom’s much-anticipated meet-up with indie producer/Jigga-Macca matchmaker Danger Mouse, and I’ve decided it’s the absence of those glory-hogging sonics that partly sinks this project, especially strange considering DM made his name hotwiring Jay-Z to the Beatles in a way that was interesting primarily because it was so indelicate.

Dangerdoom, meanwhile, feels weirdly like a star vehicle for the famously inscrutable, unidentifiable emcee, a showcase of Doom’s verbal dexterity and cartoony charm meant to increase his visibility in certain more-conventional circles. How else to explain Danger Mouse’s cleanly unobtrusive beats, most egregiously “Crosshairs,” “Vats of Urine,” and “No Names (Black Debbie),” each equipped with changelessly heavy kick drums wedded to chintzy melodies? Or how about the limp hooks proffered by Cee-Lo and Talib Kweli? Hell, Doom sounds like a hired gun on his own record on Kweli’s track, the playful but uninspiring “Old School.”

Abandoned in the spotlight, Doom appears to falter, though again I think it’s just because we’ve grown so accustomed to cherry-picking his lyrical gems from a well-blended stoned barrage. Having everything moved front-and-center forces us to work harder and wait more patiently for those pearls, which admittedly do seem fewer and further between though eventually they do emerge—images of “midgets into crunk” and a “brain saturated with cocaine and Rogaine,” warped disses urging “a golden shower for faking funk soul power” or insisting “they raps ain’t got no gift like a lonely Christmas.”

Let it not go unmentioned too that Doom earns an A+ here for sticking to themes, thanks in no small part to the contributions of his animated friends at Adult Swim, who make a number of well-enumerated cameos in the course of the album. I can’t imagine “A.T.H.F.” being half as entertaining if you’ve never seen the show, but if you haven’t had the pleasure just trust me when I say Doom clearly did his research (though I wouldn’t exactly be shocked to find out America’s Most Blunted was already a fan of the brain-scrambling ‘toon). Ditto “Space Ho’s” and “Vats of Urine,” the latter particularly impressive for providing emergency piss-guzzling advice as well as tips on producing potassium nitrate.

Sporadically encouraging as those topical riffs may well be, Doom still gets murdered by Ghostface on “The Mask,” a tantalizing accordion-driven preview of Tony Starks and Vik Vaughn’s forthcoming project. Of course, Doom’s again at a disadvantage here, as the track itself hardly qualifies as wallpaper, a hurdle that scarcely slows the Iron Man but clearly limits Metal Face’s effectiveness. With any luck, the Ghost/Doom affair will be an overdistorted, haphazardly equalized, wholly dissonant mess.

Buy it at Insound!

Reviewed by: Josh Love
Reviewed on: 2005-10-26
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