Available on: Lex LP
The homely Afro-fusion of Graceland. Cut Hands’ Afro Noise Vol. 1. The Buena Vista Dubstep Club (or, to give it its official name, Mala In Cuba). All of the above might feasibly be called ‘tourist albums’ – records that see artists quite deliberately writing from alternative geographical/ethnographical perspectives. For all its cosmic sheen, Key To The Kuffs – the first full-length collaboration between alt.rap anti-hero DOOM and producer Jneiro Jarel, released under the handle JJ DOOM – should be understood as DOOM’s submission to the canon. This is DOOM’s ‘England record’, a fascinating, and sometimes troubled, insight into the time zone/comfort zone correlation.
DOOM has been stranded in the UK for the best part of a year, supposedly prevented from returning to the US on visa troubles. Early track ‘Banished’ (“No, not deported/Be a little minute before things get sorted”) says it all: this is a record where DOOM tentatively navigates the foreign land he’s now having to call home. As travelogues go, the results aren’t exactly subtle. DOOM’s penchant for cheery Jeeves & Wooster idioms (“Vocals spill over like the rolling cliffs of Dover”) goes into overdrive. Jarel litters the record with fragments of British dialogue, and DOOM’s ooh-Nora track titles (‘Guv’nor”, Rhymin’ Slang’) push the point even further. No Bryson-esque sketches of the English condition here – DOOM opts to slap the listener in the face with a jellied eel.
Beneath all the ‘jolly old England’ fluff, however, there’s a powerful – and often jarring – sense of displacement at play. For the most part, this is a druggy, disorientating scrimmage of a record. Much of this comes down to Jarel’s Stop Error brand of beatmaking. For the most part, Jarel’s beats are twitchy, magmatic affairs – see heady intro ‘Waterlogged’, or the swampy charms of ‘Viberian Sun Part II’. Scuttling lead track ‘Gov’nor’, meanwhile, is one of the oddest bits of mutant machine music we’ve heard all year.
Jarel gives his big-name guest contributors the same warped treatment. Portishead’s Beth Gibbons – a wisp-thin presence at the best of times – is smuggled in at the bottom of the mix. Damon Albarn’s voice, meanwhile, is processed into oblivion. It might as well be Gary War’s name there on the liner notes. Even the skits are substantially less organized than your classic DOOM record: space-age mumblings, snatches of jive talk and Cock-er-nee vox pops drift through the album like flotsam. Key To The Kuffs is, in every sense, a plastic record: unashamedly synthetic, and liable to morph, merge, or melt away at any moment. The abiding mood is of an album collapsing in on itself – and, as a result, it’s sometimes a chilly listen.
What stops Keys To The Kuffs spinning out of control? DOOM, of course: the bulwark amidst the jumble. For better – and, sometimes, for worse – he’s as reliable as the dawn. He’s still a one man simile machine (our pick: “Catch a throatful from the fire vocal/ Ash and molten glass like Eyjafjallajökull”). ‘Winter Blues’ heralds the welcome return of the same bruised croon that made ‘Great Day’ and ‘That’s That’ so effective. And it remains a pleasure to hear DOOM in full deconstructionist mode: who else, Das Racist aside, is dropping lines like “The mask is like a Gundam, dumb-dumb um”? Considering how pursy DOOM sounded on Born Like This, he’s in total command here.
Which, as it happens, is the problem. With the obvious exception of Madvillainy – probably the only DOOM collab that feels like a conversation – DOOM tends to stand indifferently above his beats rather than really get stuck in. Keys To The Kuffs is no exception: he’s often lambent, but rarely incendiary. A sudden access of energy might have tipped the balance, but he opts to keep things relatively one-note throughout. There are a few tantalising moments when DOOM starts to bristle, addressing his own creeping middle age or referencing the DOOMposter furore (“honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay/Stay taking wages the anonymous way”). But, for the most part, there’s a deficit of (to use a very DOOM word) gumption beneath the surface riffing.
Exile, of course, isn’t a new theme in DOOM’s work: he’s frequently running from something, whether it’s his past identity (Operation Doomsday), polite society (Viktor Vaughan) or, you could argue, reality in general (Born Like This). Spiritually and sonically, though, Key To The Kuffs ought to go down as the most isolated of the bunch: a record where DOOM sounds like DOOM whilst everything falls apart around him. As a psychological snapshot of DOOM’s current inbetween-ness, it’s certainly a fascinating listen. But, interesting as it is, it’s a mite too spiritless to be considered a classic DOOM record. The metal faced villain’s far from treading water, but he’s not quite walking on it either – hell, if he could do that, he’d be home by now.3.5