“Born like this/ Into this/ As the chalk faces smile/ As Mrs Death laughs/ As the elevators break/ As political landscapes dissolve.” The first album from Daniel Dumile’s latest pseudonym takes its name from Charles Bukowski’s poem Dinosauria, We, whose opening lines are sampled here on the B-movie apocalypse of Cellz. The late writer’s tale of “hospitals which are so expensive it’s cheaper to die… a country where the jails are full and the madhouses closed” functions both as a prophesy of doom and a shadow biography of DOOM.
Dumile first appeared in 1990 as Zev Love X, the driving force of New York hip-hoppers KMD. In 1993 he lost both his partner/brother Subroc to a car accident and his Elektra record contract to a row over the artwork of KMD’s second album, Bl_ck B_st_rds (Dumile refused to compromise on its cover of a Sambo figure on the gallows). He abandoned music and sank into a depression that saw him sleeping rough in Manhattan. When he re-emerged in 1998, it was as MF Doom, masked supercriminal and man of many further aliases, including Metal Fingers.
Dumile hasn’t shown his real face in public since, performing behind his mask, and even conducting interviews in character. His insistence on keeping out of the limelight couldn’t be more at odds with the swaggering ego of hip-hop tradition. Is this a screen for the pain that lingers from his KMD days? Or camouflage for the mundane reality that behind this most brilliant of writers lurks a reclusive pot-bellied father of three who loves beer and comic books?
The world of Marvel remains his inspiration: his name, now shortened to DOOM (“all big letters but it isn’t no acronym,” he declares on the 91-second single, Ballskin), is adapted from Stan Lee’s Dr Doom, his records are littered with superhero and monster movie samples and Born Like This contains a rumination on the homoerotic history of the Caped Crusader and his Boy Wonder, the unfortunately titled Batty Boyz. DOOM revels in being the outsider, the freak reviled by society, the supervillain who is not all bad. His twist on hip-hop archetypes, casting himself as a rapping Phantom of the Opera returning to wreak revenge on those who wronged him, is given added spice by his own history.
Although Born Like This is his first album in four years, little has changed. “Same guy, same disguise, sick aim, eye stare,” as he says on Rap Ambush, a journey into the heart of a metaphorical insurgent hurling RPGs (“rhyme-propelled grenades”). He still likes to make life difficult. Choruses are a long-standing no-go, tracks veer off at right angles or skid abruptly to a halt. Guests Raekwon and Ghostface are chosen not for their pulling power, but their knack for submerging identity beneath an assumed character. Production duties are mostly split between DOOM and Jake One, fashioning a sound ripe with piercing organs and violins pitched around the point where Frankenstein’s monster hauls himself out of his surgical straps.
After a period of workaholism that threatened overkill, followed by a period of hibernation, Born Like This finds DOOM back to his scalpel-tongued, scatter-mouthed best. KMD couldn’t have ended worse; Daniel Dumile’s renaissance could scarcely have gone better. As the closing lines of Dinosauria, We have it: “Born out of that/ The sun still hidden there/ Awaiting the next chapter.”