Mystery and celebrity often go hand in hand. The less we know, the more we feel we need to know, especially in an age where an inactive Twitter account means you’re all but dead to the world. Earl Sweatshirt can barely enjoy life without being harassed by fans thirsty for a new album. The accounts of formerly showy artists like Drake and Eminem are little more than promotional tools at this point. Their personal lives are on a controlled slow drip.
But the solitary tweet on MF DOOM’s page trumps them all:
Those five words are a succinct reminder of the surreal humor and mystery that the man formerly known as Daniel Dumile wears as plain as the mask on his face. His raps are stream-of-consciousness mind dumps that owe as much to Marvel’s Stan Lee as they do to Kool Keith. More often than not, his beats paint a clearer picture of the man than his raps do, bending samples from cartoons and how-to books to his whim with a nostalgic boom bap tinge. He’s just as likely to send an imposter to one of his shows or pull out of a 15-week partnership with Adult Swim as he is to drop a collab with Danger Mouse or Westside Gunn. It’s his world and we’ve all just been living in it since the late 1980s.
This air of mystery played as big a role in drawing me into the DOOM mythos as the beats and rhymes did. I used to drive my cousin crazy in middle school and high school, running DOOM tracks back for days on YouTube. Years later, I’m still finding jewels to cherish. But even a discography as illustrious as DOOM’s has a hierarchy.
After much time and thought, here is every album from the Metal Faced Villain, ranked. I’ll see you in the comments section.
12. NehruvianDOOM (Bishop Nehru & MF DOOM) — NehruvianDOOM (2014)
Even as an MC known for left-field collaborations, DOOM’s announcement of a team-up with New York upstart Bishop Nehru was an unexpected left hook in 2014. Early singles like the menacing “Om” and the supreme tag-team that is “Caskets” were promising; as was Nehru’s debut Nehruvia mixtape. The kid clearly had chops and DOOM saw fit to use his underground bat signal to give him some shine. But a lack of personality (it’s hard not to hear 1999-era Joey Bada$$ in there) combined with some of DOOM’s most uninspired beats and rhymes to date left this eight-track project feeling undercooked and ready to evaporate.
Nehru’s since signed to Mass Appeal Records and enlisted DOOM and Kaytranada, among others, to produce his debut solo album. I hope that it’s livelier than this.
11. Viktor Vaughn — Venomous Villain (2002)
Did you know that DOOM released a second album under his Viktor Vaughn alias? Many don't, and after running through Venomous Villain a few times, it's easy to understand why.
The impact of DOOM/Vaughn’s rhymes rise and fall on the strength of the beats, and outside of the Diplo-produced “Back End” and the two-song suite of “Dope Skill”/”Doper Skiller,” the production on Venomous is cohesive at best, bland at worst. DOOM/Vaughn and Kool Keith going at each other like Optimus Prime and Megatron on “Doper Skiller” is a lyrical treat for underground heads, but no one ever stopped to consider if a full-length sequel to Vaudeville Villain was even necessary.
10. JJ DOOM (Jneiro Jarel & MF DOOM) — Key to the Kuffs (2012)
When DOOM was barred from entering the United States after an extended tour through Europe in 2010 due to passport trouble, he only had one answer: “I’m done with the United States.” Key to the Kuffs—his collaboration with New Orleans beat maestro Jinero Jarel—was recorded shortly after his forced relocation to his hometown of London. Kuffs can be cheeky about his new spot on occasion (“The supervillain been kicked out ya country / And he said the Pledge of Allegiance six times monthly” from “Borin Convo”), but for the most part, this is an album of wonderfully weird raps about melanin and Frankenfoods over beats just under the bar of “weird enough.”
“Guv’Nor” is a twinkling descent into madness accented by a Regular Show sample; but for every song like this or “Banished” that cuts loose and has some fun with the DOOM formula, there’s a line about “feminizing men again” or an indistinct beat that snaps the kuffs back on again. Cohesion doesn’t always make for good albums, but it’s possible that DOOM and Jarel might not have been the best match for an entire project.
9. DOOM — Born Like This (2009)
Naming your album after a Charles Bukowski passage is a quick way to let people know that it’s time to get serious. If Kuffs could feel cold at times, Born Like This feels downright bitter, with DOOM painting exclusively with the greens and greys that make up his costume. It’s cohesive to the point of being monochromatic, even with outside producers like Madlib and Jake One chopping beats. There’s excellent storytelling in the crime saga “Absolutely” and rap aerobics on “That’s That” and the clacking “Ballskin," but as a whole, Born Like This isn’t sturdy facewear. The album version of Ghostface collab “Angelz” is early demo quality, great cameos from Raekwon and Empress Starhh feel airlifted from another project, and “Batty Boyz” is still a low point in a career full of thinly veiled homophobia.
But when the beat clicks and DOOM keeps to his thesaurus, there’s little doubt that he was indeed born like this.
8. KMD — Mr. Hood (1991)
While Mr. Hood isn’t technically a DOOM album, there is no MF DOOM without KMD. Before the mask and the mystery, there was Zev Love X, a Five-Percenter with a high-pitched voice and bars ready to unspool. He, his brother DJ Subroc and Onyx The Birthstone Kid subscribed to the same freewheeling positive vibes that members of the Native Tongues like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul did.
Their debut album is a walking tour of Long Beach, New York, made up of wide-eyed Afrocentric raps over sweet, tinny R&B flips. Many of DOOM’s trademarks can be traced back to this album: his obscure sampling palette (the album’s titular narrator of sorts is culled audio from a language learning tape), his internal rhyme schemes and his conceptual genius. Where else will a rapper chart out the chase for Little Black Sambo with Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street? Even given its content, Mr. Hood is a fun and breezy record that helped lay the groundwork for the villainy that was to come.
7. Danger Doom (Danger Mouse & MF DOOM) — The Mouse and The Mask (2005)
Adult Swim and hip-hop were formally introduced when DOOM and super-producer Danger Mouse approached the company to use anime soundbites. One thing led to another and both were more or less canonized in the Adult Swim universe with fourteen tracks of kooky bliss. DOOM’s rhymes remain power word crunches, but The Mouse and The Mask might be a rare moment where DOOM’s zaniness is matched by his producer’s.
DOOM finds not one but two phrases that rhyme with “Meatwad” over twanging guitar and drums. DOOM hosts a talk show over eerie alien whispers on one track and raps about the wonders of urine over blaring horns on another. DOOM and guest Talib Kweli reminded me that “cartoons be realer than reality TV” on “Old School Rules” and I haven’t forgotten it since.
It might exist as a commercial for Adult Swim first and foremost, but the duo’s chemistry is deliriously goofy even if you don’t know your Harvey Birdman from your Brak Show.
6. KMD — Black Bastards (2001)
Two years is a mighty long time in music. Originally set to drop in 1993, KMD’s sophomore album Black Bastards hit a few snags. Onyx The Birthstone Kid’s departure turned them into a duo before DJ Subroc was struck by a car on the Long Island Expressway and killed. To add insult to injury, Elektra Records shelved the album because of its cover; a picture of a Sambo moments before a deadly game of hangman. The album didn’t see an official release until 2001.
The night-and-day difference in tone between Mr. Hood and Black Bastards is spooky, given the circumstances. While the former was comparatively jaunty and upbeat, Black Bastards drags its feet through the grime of self-discovery. The project is angrier but more at encroaching young adulthood than the white squares they sized up on Mr. Hood. The trio wades through drinking (“Sweet Premium Wine”), sex (“Plumskinzz (Loose Hoe, God & Cupid)”) and gun-riddled streets (“Get-U-Now”) in an effort to get answers.
The events leading up to the release of Black Bastards directly affected Dumile’s transition into the metal-faced villain we all know and love. It’s a perfect example of stumbling with grace.
5. King Gheedorah — Take Me to Your Leader (2003)
The cover of Take Me to Your Leader always catches my eye: A cutout of the three-headed Godzilla villain King Ghidorah staring down a battalion of paper tanks. A diorama cover is about as apt a choice for an album by a sample-heavy producer like DOOM (here under the alias King Geedorah), who crafted all but one song on this joint project.
Outside of two songs, DOOM’s main presence is on the production side, with MCs like Kurious, Starrh, Hassan Chop and others cutting loose over smooth beats. It’s a tag-team free-for-all in every sense and DOOM provides the popping head nod nirvana so every monster can show their teeth. But skits like “Monster Zero” and the title track are like the collages on the cover, made from disparate pieces feeding into a whole greater than itself.
4. Viktor Vaughn — Vaudeville Villain (2003)
If MF DOOM is the despot ruling over the streets, then Viktor Vaughn is the youngblood running through them. Coming four years after the comeback that was Operation: Doomsday, there’s a focus and a hunger pushing Dumile from “Modern Day Mugging” to a post-apocalyptic sci-fi open mic night without missing a tonal step. As Vaughn, Dumile’s style is more confrontational and direct than that of the masked villain proper. He wants you to know just how wack you are.
The fires were stoked even further by Dumile/DOOM/Vaughn entrusting production duties to five others (RJD2, King Honey, Heat Sensor, Max Bill and Mr. Ten), his skittery flows matching the beats with eerie precision. There was a period of time after I first discovered DOOM when I thought he only sounded his best over his own production. His brand of hard-knocking obscurity was hard to top. Yet, hearing Vaughn retell a short crime saga to rival Ghostface over clanging sirens on “Lactose and Lecithin” was a marvel. Hearing him flex about breaking the matrix over RJD2’s blaring horns on “Saliva” is popcorn-munching levels of wonderful. Witnessing he and underground legend Apani B go through the motions of a relationship only for Vik to make an ass of himself on “Let Me Watch” is sobering.
Vaudeville Villain may not be the best example of DOOM rapping over other people’s beats, but it is one of the first and an expansive world that seeps into your brain slowly. I’m forever grateful for that.
3. MF DOOM — Operation: Doomsday (1999)
Losing your brother and being dropped by your record label in the same week can do things to your psyche. Dumile fell off the grid for several years to collect himself and re-emerged at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York, adorned in a metal mask. He was scorned by the industry the same way Doctor Doom thought the world had shunned him when he fucked up that science experiment in college. Operation: Doomsday was his rebirth.
And what a rebirth it was. This is the closest things DOOM has to a manifesto to this day: Elastic flows and word puzzles over an eclectic bed of beats. His flexes sound more vigorous (“Rhymes Like Dimes”), his streams of consciousness threaded with more conviction (“Gas Drawls”) and the concept of the rise and fall of a real-life supervillain fully formed. DOOM’s vintage wizardry behind the boards only adds saturated grit and color to a world of greenbacks and renewed purpose. The patchwork skits throughout tell just as much of a story as the rhymes themselves do.
He ended his run in KMD as a man lost in the ether of young adulthood and emerged as a lyrical despot who staked his claim to underground legend and cashed it in. There isn’t a corner of the rap world that Doomsday didn’t touch.
2. MF DOOM — MM.. FOOD? (2004)
Fourteen years ago, DOOM decided to make an album about food. Not because of our inherent relationship with food, but because hip-hop had forgotten what it was like to just enjoy a snack. “It’s about the beats / Not about the streets of who food he ‘bout to eat,” he claims on opener “Beef Rapp.”
The prophecy of Operation: Doomsday had been fulfilled and he was ready to cut even further loose. He sounds more relaxed and in control of his instrument here than ever before, letting off lethal bars about nothing in particular. He moves the crowd “like an old Negro spiritual” on one track and is popping the bubble vests of rap snitches the next. Most of these beats are sourced from the Special Herbs & Spices series, but they glow and crackle in ways that few other DOOM solo projects can touch. The lurching funk of both “Poo-Putt Platter” and “Vomitspit” in particular stand as some of the best he’s ever made, sliding in between his weird cadences likes butter on toast.
The only takeaway message from an album like MM.. FOOD? is, if rap isn’t fun, why are you doing it?
1. Madvillain (Madlib & MF Doom) — Madvillainy (2004)
Some artists were just born to work together. When their paths eventually cross, they bring out the best in each other and form a unit greater than the sum of its parts. In 2004, that duo was MF DOOM and Madlib.
It isn’t just because this is the album that put Stones Throw Records on the independent music map. It isn’t even great just because of how its greatness feeds into the legends of both the metal-faced villain and Oxnard, CA’s finest producer. Its greatness stems from being a truly great rap album even when separated from the pedigree of everyone involved. “The rest is empty with no brain but the clever nerd / The best MC with no chain ya ever heard,” DOOM snarls at the opening of “Figaro,” internal rhymes falling in lockstep with the muted thump and guitar strums of Madlib’s beat. When he’s not flexing about how he’s got the “best rolled L's” (“America’s Most Blunted”), he’s dressing down the police force with reckless abandon (“Strange Ways”). Even when he “hold the microphone and stole the show for fun,” DOOM and Madlib are swinging for the fences on every single track.
Madvillainy is so much more than just a dope collaboration. It’s a melding of the minds.
Earl Sweatshirt once said it did for us what Wu-Tang did for '80s babies. If that’s the case, I’m proud to say that Madvillainy was my 36 Chambers.