MF DOOM has been disappointing fans for the better part of a decade now. When he first emerged, he proved to be one of the best rappers to emerge from the underground, armed with a prolificness that was practically unheard of (to recap: two of the best hip-hop albums of 2003 and 2004 were all helmed by him). So when he disappeared, people were left with a unsatisfactory blue balls feeling. Ignoring the failed “concept” of sending imposters at live shows, there was also the fact that promised projects never saw the light of day (I’m not even going to mention wanting a proper sequel to 2004’s Madvillainy because fool me three, four times, etc. – more recently, I’m thinking of his supposed Ghostface collaboration), and when DOOM finally gave us a gift in 2009 with Born Like This, expectations were too high to be met. Fast-forward to 2012, and DOOM seemed to have returned, with MA DOOM: Son of Yvonne released in July, but it turned out to be Masta Ace rapping over chosen MF DOOM beats instead of a proper collaboration.
That’s where Keys to the Kuffs comes in – the first actual DOOM release since 2009’s Born Like This, with DOOM on the frontlines and Jneiro Janel (Dr. Who Dat?) handling productions. Still though, Keys to the Kuffs has some similar problems with Born Like This. The production is better, with no “duds” like rapping over old Dilla beats (“Lightworks”), thanks to Jneiro Janel, who provides an IDM-based sound that’s immediately different than other producer-collaborators. But, the main problem that carries over from Born Like This is a lack of MF DOOM. On Born Like This, a lot of the tracks only featured a quick verse from MF DOOM, and others had him completely absent (ie. “Still Dope”). It’s not as much of an issue on Keys to the Kuffs, because the tracks that don’t have DOOM on them are still carried by Jneiro Janel – I just find it weird that a track titled “Still Kaps,” an obvious reference to “All Caps” from Madvillainy, is delivered by Khujo Goodie instead of MF DOOM.
Jneiro Janel’s sound has a definite post-Flying Lotus sound to it. For example, there’s an uneasy wobble that comes in on Beth Gibbons-aided “GMO,” the only proper feature on the album (Damon Albarn, despite having his well-known name attached to “Bite the Thong,” is essentially invisible). The IDM sounds are a nice touch, with the acoustic guitar that serves as the backbone of the track and the 2-beat muscle. Still, though, I don’t see the point of the random inclusion of a new verse and new beat after the violin outdo at the 3:08 mark, delivered by someone completely new (don’t tell me that’s DOOM). As previously mentioned, there are tracks where DOOM is entirely absent, as on “‘Bout the Shoes” that follows, but it gives a chance for Jneiro Janel to shine; the opening beat is fantastic; a heavy stomping drum over a mechanical stutter, that’s followed by Boston Fielder doing soul over an electronic grind.
For those who are craving MF DOOM’s well-known style, go immediately to “Winter Shoes” and closer “Wash Your Hands,” two conceptual tracks that remind us briefly of DOOM’s greatness. The first is surrounded by references to melanin, with the ending skit declaring, “You cannot continuously polarize yourself against this molecule / I don’t care how white your skin is, you are black on the inside, you have melanin that you have to communicate with so that it functions with you” – if it weren’t for a course change during the verses to focus on women, it’d have easily been MF DOOM’s bleakest track. Closer “Wash Your Hands” fairs much better because the message is uniform, where DOOM laments the rise of STDs with lines like “You like the way she shake her back area? / It’s like a sex machine that make bacteria” and “Shit, before I get to stabbin’ it / At least know her habits and what’s in her medicine cabinet.” Unfortunately, while Key to the Kuffs doesn’t have anything that’s outrightly bad, there’s just not enough highlights for this to be a good DOOM release, especially when you consider how long we’ve been waiting for it. But I suppose, we’re lucky to have gotten it at all.