Late last year, Lex Records posted up "Retarded Fren," a track created by Thom Yorke, Johnny Greenwood, and MF Doom (a.k.a. Daniel Dumile). The song was featured on the label's 10th anniversary compilation, and has now resurfaced on MF Doom's most recent collaborative effort, a 15-track LP crafted in tandem with Brooklyn-born producer Jneiro Jarel. Working together under the moniker JJ Doom, Jarel and Dumile filled in the dry silences on the original version's sparse, industrial beat with a flourish that recalls Flying Lotus thanks to its lurching pulse, blossoms of watery keys, and film of quiet noises.
The updated version of "Retarded Frend" boasts a pretty flair and an abstract suppleness that the original lacks, but Doom's dry-throated flow can be hard to make out amongst the cluttered beat. Many of the beats on the album demonstrate a similarly loose, busy, and murky aesthetic, which tends to overpower Doom's verses. The grinding murkiness of Jarel's beat on "Banished," for instance, is so loud and unfettered that it acts more like a cloud that envelops Doom's voice than an anchoring rhythm for his manic thoughts.
After all, Doom's rhymes are often hard to follow, even when delivered sans beat. The UK native sometimes employs the tricky rhyming style known as "rhyming slang," which can be hard to explain and even harder to understand for anyone unfamiliar with it. The practice served as the namesake for the song "Rhymin' Slang," which finds Doom tossing out lines about the rap game with a nonsensical stream of consciousness, stating "Rarely scarcely scary, glaring stare/Best be very clear, MCs is very air," which might his way of saying that other rappers are scared of him. "Borin Convo" is one of the few tracks where his voice is able to rise above the murky melee of Jarel's production, clearing the way for slightly political verses about the "supervillain" foreigner in America.
Doom's rant about an immigrant's plight while trying to blend into an alien culture isn't the only politically charged track on the album. "Guv'nor," which features one of the most tangible and head-nodding beats on the record, contains a cluster of colonial puns about drugs and the declining value of the dollar, while "Winter Blues" ends with a lengthy sample of a woman arguing that all humans need "a direct conscious relationship" with the melanin molecules in their bodies. It's an interesting assertion, but it's hard to ignore that Doom's dissection of sociopolitical affairs contains ideas that seem a bit half baked; for instance, the minute-long sample in "Winter Blues" about how all humans have melanin in their biochemical makeup feels apropos of nothing, and doesn't appear to be part of any coherent ideological philosophy. As such, maybe it's not always a bad thing when Jarel's production smothers Doom's flow.
Nevertheless, although his political ideas may be rough hewn, Doom's latest effort stands out from some of the major releases in his discography, as his rhymes on Key to the Kuffs are less concerned with "doing bong hits on the roof in the West Coast." Furthermore, his words here have an intriguing new backdrop crafted by Jarel, whose sonic experimentation matches Doom's ambitious conceptual moves step for step. The combination may not always work perfectly, but the effort rarely ceases to be interesting.