The digitalization of our society has created numerous new challenges and conveniences. But for every Twitter troll or deranged blogger that makes me doubt if this whole Internet thing was a good idea, I can always come back to one unalterable fact; the Internet has made finding and accessing quality music easier than at any time in human history. However, with this flood of music available with the ease of a Google search comes the problem of finding what is good. “Ok… Bravo Treske (or Andrew, who even knows these days?)…. You solved the reason that Earhole exists in the first place.” Yes, imaginary friend whom I shall call Hubert, this is true, but my point in this introduction is to say that potentially life-enhancing albums slip through the cracks all the time. All you need is a friendly suggestion.
We here at Earhole are unveiling a feature called “Hidden Gems”, where a staff member gives you that friendly suggestion by writing about an album you may not have listened to… and tells you why you should listen to it immediately.
Alright, with that out of the way, let’s grab the Deloreans, hot tubs, and phone booths because we are headed to 2003 to check the slept-on opus Vaudeville Villain by Viktor Vaughn (AKA MF Doom).
Born Daniel Dumile, MF Doom has been a fixture of underground hip-hop since his involvement in the early 90’s group KMD, which he formed with his brother, DJ Subroc (Dingilizwe Dumile). Tragically, his brother was struck by a car and killed shortly before the release of their second album. Within that same week, their record label, Elektra Records, dropped them. Beyond being less than uncompassionate, this caused MF Doom to distrust typical channels of the music industry to the extent that he went perma-underground by choice. Oh, and he also decided to don a metal mask for the rest of his career.
While being “underground” is not career suicide in today’s world of Soundcloud and DIY, one can’t say the same about the pre-internet music industry. MF Doom’s decision came in the days of labels Bad Boy, Ruff Ryders, and Cash Money dominating which hip-hop music was released and who released it. A major label signing is evidence of an audience today; it was crucial to even gain an audience back in the late 90’s. Thankfully, MF Doom triumphed beyond the typical channels and went on to enjoy an insanely prolific five year stretch from 1999-2004, when he released four instant classics: Operation: Doomsday, Take Me To Your Leader (released as King Geedorah), Vaudeville Villain (released as Viktor Vaughn), and the most critically acclaimed Madvillainy (with Madlib).
MF Doom is a rapper and producer of undeniable and idiosyncratic quality. His production style has evolved, but his ability to make grainy samples come to life remains the same. Operation: Doomsday and Take Me To Your Leader (as other alter-ego King Geedorah) are pristine albums that spotlight MF Doom as a master producer. Madvillainy is a collaboration of two titans of underground hip-hop that stands as a totemic album. I have listened to all those albums exhaustively, but Vaudeville Villain is my favorite ever MF Doom release because it is the album in which his abilities purely as a rapper are most on display. Put more simply, on Vaudeville Villain, MF Doom focuses purely on demonstrating why he is one of the best lyricists of all time.
Vaudeville Villain is a concept-album written from the perspective of the Dumile alter-ego, Viktor Vaughn (a play on Doctor Doom). Vaughn is a comic book villain in-training, studying at Eastern State University in New York City (of the Spiderman comic series) on a full science scholarship. By day, he studies, conducts strange forbidden experiments, and writes rhymes. By night, he consumes any drug or alcohol in sight, deals drugs, chases girls, and consistently commits armed robbery. Of course, he does this all with the GAF of someone that finds out they have one week to live. MF Doom is a comic book fiend, and the concept brings out the most evocative and coherent story-telling of his career. The album contains no choruses or hooks; this one is for the purists. Even still, the samples of cartoons instill a playful quality in the music. His lyrical prowess is at its peak on this work of hip-hop genius. He weaves an incredible tale of a modern urban criminal with all the verve, imagination, and thrills of the comic narratives that inspire him.
The album opens with comic book music that perfectly introduces you to the warped world of Viktor Vaughn. “Vaudeville Villain” is a statement of head-bobbing intent, giving the listener their first glimpse into Doom’s hyper-referential, dense, rapid-fire lyrical styling. His flow and guttural delivery meld perfectly to assail the listener over the chaotic and mechanic beat held together by a wondrous drum kit in action. This is a rapper that is intent on showing he is dope with bar after bar crashing over his listeners, barely giving them a second to consider the dopeness before them.
“Lickupon” samples Biggie’s “Warning”, and MF gives every bit of respect to Big by dropping some of his best bars on the album. As with “Vaudeville Villain” (and really much of the album), this is a character sketch at its finest. He hits with a flurry of shit-talking and call-outs, specifically targeting the gun culture of hip-hop. “Enough with the guns already, they all toys and lames/The joy’s in the aim, he asked him, how’s ya poison game/Do you bust your crossbow? Also, more so/Accurate body blows to torso, thought so.” He also delivers some of my favorite bars on the album with, “Die calmer than a suicide bomber/V the type to do a ‘hoo ride with Momma/Said to James Bond, my name is Viktor, Viktor Vaughn/Told the chick the quickest way to get on, lickupon.” The best MF Doom rhymes are off-the-wall to the point that the listener is left gobsmacked, wondering how in the hell Doom thinks of these things.On Vaudeville Villain, the rhymes have a narrative focus.
“The Drop” closes the first three songs on the album, which are basically MF enacting a scorched earth policy by shitting on everybody and everything in sight while giving insight into the deranged villain, Viktor Vaughn. “The Drop” once more features MF delivering bar after bar after bar after bar over a beat that would sound at home underwater. Strange flutes, bubbling ambient noise, and a clean drum kit that grounds the beat allow MF Doom to go off. I highly recommend Rap Genius on this one. Or at least three consecutive listens.
The next track, “Lactose and Lecithin” chronicles Viktor Vaughn through police confrontation and drug pick-up (not exactly new narratives) with the “out of left-field genius” typical of MF. Viktor’s character as the deranged and paranoid criminal comes into clearer view as he kills a police officer, “Cuz he had those type of eyes.” The beat is dark, murky, and hurried and it takes you hurtling through Vaughn’s tale of violence and depravity. Finally, Vaughn ends up scoring a 14 gram bag of coke only to find that it is mainly lactose, lecithin, and aspirin. It is dense storytelling that sucks you with the force of a Jedi.
“Raedawn” and “A Dead Mouse” showcase Doom’s ability to rhyme on any damn beat you place in front of him. “A Dead Mouse” sounds like something out of “The Beatles went hippy and traveled to India” phase of their career. It is slinky, groovy, and oh so bizarre. ”Raedawn” rings from ear to ear with fractured tones surrounded by gorgeous, spacy chimes. It also features the hilarious bars, “Uh oh, it’s beer o’clock I think I’m sober/How bout we think this over over a can of King Cobra.”
Viktor may be consumed by a magnetic attraction to crime and drugs, but that ain’t the only thing he is drawn to. “Can I Watch” spins a tale of young love and lust with two emcees representing the female and male points of view. Unsurprisingly, Viktor is not in it for just some innocent companionship, and it does not end well. His attempt at manipulation ends up with the object of his lustful affection prescribed Prozac. He is not a nice dude.
MF Doom has another foray into a typical narrative of hip-hop, the stick-up, with “Modern Day Mugging.” Once more bringing his own perspective with unparalleled style. I mean, who drops bars like, “If he was on an island he’d rob a millionaire/And be known for wilin’ out like Bob Dylan hair”? The story ends with a senior citizen nicking Vaughn’s camo with a storm of bullets. Moral of the story for Vaughn? “Senior citizens will bust they guns too!”
RJD2 makes an appearance by producing the most accessible track on the album, “Saliva”. The beat is triumphant with horns, strings, and some the meanest drums giving Doom the perfect platform to talk that shit. He complies willingly delivering on bars like, “Know the stee, write a rhyme like a mystery/And sign it on the bottom in caligraphy, ‘Your Nigga, V’.”
MF Doom is a king of underground hip-hop and stands as one of the most talented and unique voices in the history of the genre. His voice is full of charisma, charm, confidence, and a complete sense of self. His other releases are undeniably brilliant, but this is MF Doom at his most lyrically focused. His talents as a rapper were at their peak for this vastly underappreciated album. The metaphors, wordplay, flow, storytelling, and unique style on display in Vaudeville Villain are something to behold. The album is dark, sleek, and brimming with inventiveness and creativity. You will never hear anything else like it. In my opinion, it is one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. It deserves all the recognition it can get.