October 20, 2005

Danger Doom: The Mouse and the Mask

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One of the best things about hip-hop is that good MC’s tend to hang out with good producers. Whether it is Mos Def and Talib Kweli with DJ Hi-Tek or Q-Tip and Phife Dog with Ali Shaheed, when like-minded individuals like Danger Mouse and MF Doom combine their talents, the product definitely stands up to the hype. Easily one of the most anticipated albums of the year, The Mouse and the Mask is also one of the best in recent memory. But then again, what did you expect?

On the MC side, MF Doom or Madvillain or Victor Vaughan, or whatever the pseudonym de jour is, delivers what his fans have come to expect: consistent free association, delivered at an unremarkable yet cleverly understandable tempo. Unlike storyteller Mos Def or social critic Talib Kweli, Doom’s lyrics are often meaningless, but nonetheless beautifully manipulate the intricacies of language. There isn’t a rhyme left unexploited when Doom is done. On “No Names,” lines like “True, Doom rolled on through with a whole crew / The stole on you for holding old brew who told you – Hold your applause, they break God’s laws and who pays? / The taxpayer that’s who, catch a rapper by his toe and smack of his tattoos” don’t have much significance, but the way he maximizes every alliteration and end-rhyme is extraordinary.

The choice guest appearances only add to the album’s impressiveness. MF Doom doesn’t exactly have the most expressive voice, so the additions of a Cee-Lo chorus or a Talib Kweli verse on “Benzie Box” and “Old School” are definitely welcomed. Ghostface probably makes “The Mask” as good as it is. But just as you begin to get tired of all these cameos, the next ten tracks revert back to the singular talents of Danger Mouse and Doom.

While MF Doom holds his own with the rhymes, the beats on The Mouse and the Mask, all exaggeration aside, are remarkable. A friend of mine gave me an insight into the work of genius producers like Danger Mouse – mainly, don’t dare call their tracks mere sampling.

DM is a composer in every sense of the word. Like Mozart, he shows his melodic ear on “Space Ho’s” and “The Mask” while the complexity of “Crosshairs” rivals any nine-piece Motown band. In some ways the Mouse is a little like Puccini – writing these tracks is like composing an opera, subtly combining different elements of sound, instrumentation and voice to produce a cohesive whole. But instead of winds and brass, Danger Mouse’s tools are a pair of Technics SL1200Mk2 and a drum kit. It makes no difference – the music is still as rich as that of an orchestra, a modern arrangement of flutes and strings and flutes that happens to be backed by heavy drum and bass.

And when it comes right down to it, most of the beats are just so hot. You can’t help but shake your head and want to get up and dance as Danger Mouse delivers track after track of bumpin’ mixes. “Benzie Box” might be a reverent nod to co-legendary producer Dr. Dre’s work on tracks like “Some L.A. Niggaz.”

Always versatile, Danger Mouse also pays his respect to Talib’s producers, mimicking the beats we frequently heard on his recent release, The Beautiful Struggle, when the rapper makes a guest appearance on “Old School.” Later tracks, however, fit nicely with a more traditional Danger Mouse, a combination of crisp acoustics with thick drum lines.

With all these perfect ingredients, you might be surprised to find yourself strangely infuriated when you listen to the whole thing the first time. What could ever be wrong with an entire album of individually memorable pieces? It’s probably the product placement of The Mouse and the Mask.

Completely contradicting their allegiance to underground hip-hop and all its non-commercial hype, DJ Danger Mouse and MF Doom pepper each and every track with a minute-skit featuring the character voices of Cartoon Network “Adult Swim” shows like Space Ghost and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Why would anyone laugh at, or even want to hear, the talking milkshake “Shake” leaving messages on MF Doom’s answering machine? And the fact that the outer plastic label lists “Adult Swim” alongside the MC and DJ as the creative forces behind The Mouse and the Mask just makes no sense.

I can see absolutely no justification, no matter how rich Cartoon Network’s treasury may be, as to why the princes of underground would strike a deal with any company. Every bleep or weak segue can be blamed squarely on the advertising. I hate to say it, but the corporate tie-in essentially ruins any chances of this album entering a higher pantheon of hip-hop classics, where it arguably rightfully belongs.

But if you can turn the volume down for the last two minutes or so of each song, you’ll quickly hear the unbelievable accomplishment of putting DJ Danger Mouse and MF Doom in the same room. And if we are to judge our musicians on the basis of their music and music alone, their genius almost makes up for any mistakes they might have made outside the studio.

Archived article by Elliot Singer
Sun Staff Writer