« September 2004 | Home | November 2004 »

Conversations with Fyodor

What can you say about a work as epic as The Brothers Karamazov? I finished it a month ago and I'm still not sure. It is undoubtedly a masterpiece in many ways (brilliant characters, haunting allegory, and elements of psychology and philosophy worthy of his contemporaries in those fields) but for me it begins and ends with the ideas and the way they are explored. Dostoevsky uses Karamazov as a means to flesh out all of the internal conversations he's had over the years on most of life's most important subjects. Every character has a distinct and valid voice in the matter and the result is a rich dialogue that raises more questions than it answers. I found this lack of resolution a bit frustrating because I gained such respect for Dostoevsky as an intellectual over the course of the novel that I wanted to know where he finally stood. But I suppose that's not the point. Grappling with these fundamental issues without imposing his conclusions is probably what makes the novel so timeless.

Not surprisingly, my favorite part of the book is in Part II, Book V--the chapters Rebellion and The Grand Inquistor. They are beautiful, eloquent and unsettling. I have wrestled with them and I will continue to revisit them periodically until they give me peace. I heard a rumor that Dostoevsky was working on a sequel to Brothers in which our hero Alyosha goes through a night of doubt and questions his faith, which sounds to me like everything I loved about the first book expanded into an entire novel. The mind reels at the possibility.

In the spirit of adding another voice to the conversations that Fyodor started, my next reading consists of a couple of books by C.S. Lewis that are on topic: The Screwtape Letters (on conversing with the devil) and The Problem of Pain (on the problem of innocent suffering in a world created by a loving God). The more voices, the merrier, right?

October 20, 2004

The Illest Villains

I've been thinking about how to express my appreciation for MF Doom's music ever since I put his latest effort--Madvillainy, a collaboration with producer Madlib--in the deck three weeks ago. I've been listening to it non-stop since then. Doom is the kind of rare m.c. that you can listen to for that long and still enjoy it, even catching new things on your fifteenth listen. Review spoiler: I loved Madvillainy. But to that in a minute.

The first Doom album I listened to was Operation: Doomsday, his first solo effort, and it remains one of my favorite hip hop albums of all time. It is a concept album but not in the sense that many rappers release half-hearted songs as their pimp persona. In fact it even transcends most concept albums in that the purpose of the concept isn't merely academic or educational but instead deeply intertwines with his personal life. The persona he inhabits on the album (and for the most part since then) is MF Doom, based on Marvel Comics' Dr. Doom, an ambitious if slightly troubled scientist who is involved in a terrible, disfiguring accident for which he blames the world and vows to destroy it (or so I understood from the album's clips). When I read up on Doom's (the m.c.) past, its similarities to the comic brought a new and painful profundity to the album. Doom started out in the early nineties under the name Zev Love X with his brother Subroc in the group KMD. Shortly after their second album was released, his brother was hit and killed by a car and Doom disappeared for almost five years. When he resurfaced, he carried a new name (MF Doom), always appeared in a metal mask and bore the weight of the character's legacy. Operation: Doomsday is filled with the pain and alienation of losing his brother and contains some of the post-accident "me against the world" attitude characteristic of villains. The persona is a perfect fit and the album is cohesive, heartfelt and brilliant.

But now back to Madvillainy. In the time between between these two albums, Doom has effectively taken on other personae (most notably Viktor Vaughn) but here he returns as MF Doom, which I would like to believe is the closest to his real self. The "villain" aspect of the newer album is negligible but knowing MF's history brings some weight to it. He still bears the scars of his past and will never be able to escape them. The most noticeable characteristic of the album on first listen is the length--46:24 in total, averaging just over two minutes per track. This was initially quite upsetting because many of the tracks are so great (I'd trade "Shadows of Tomorrow," "Operation Lifesaver" and my left arm for two more verses of "Accordion") but the new format grows on you as you begin to see the cohesiveness of the album as a whole. I'll admit that in my initial disappointment, I was ready to blame this lack of focus on marijuana, which the album reeks of, but this AllHipHop.com interview helped to clear that up:

AllHipHop.com: How was it working with Madlib on the Madvillain project?

MFD: This project was the most fun s**t. All of Mad's beats was raw, so it wasn't no problem choosing beats, it's just that he had so many beats. We did the first part of the album in L.A. and I just wrote to the beats when I heard them, so it was kind of like freestyling, but writing it down.

This is exactly how the album sounds, as if Madlib sent Doom a suitcase full of tapes, he sat down and wrote down the freestyles that came to mind, refined them and then they met and stitched it all together. Doom's rhymes over the course of the whole album have a freestyled feel but, taken individually, they're too linguistically complex for it to actually be so. Sasha Frere-Jones does a much better job of describing his style, as always:

Doom, who appears on the cover masked, looking like an extra from "Alexander Nevsky," takes a deep pleasure in words: alliteration, internal rhymes, and pure sound. The point of "Madvillainy" is largely poetic--celebrating the language of music and the music of language. It's not hard to quote Doom.

Indeed. Doom's rhymes seem nonsensical at times, as he sometimes values sound patterns, word associations and obscure pop culture references over narrative but that's not always the case. On "Strange Ways," he cleverly suggests that religious extremists (along with some of those fighting them?) are no better than any other type of thug. On "Fancy Clown," he appears as Viktor Vaughn and laments the loss of his girlfriend to a certain "tin head." Having one of your alter egos steal a girlfriend from another? Genius. On top of all of this, Doom will occasionally drop in a gem that will express more in a sentence or phrase than most can manage in an entire verse. Subtlety is key.

Madlib pulls his share of the weight too. His beats are the perfect accompaniment for Doom's improvisational style. He has as good of a knowledge and love of jazz as any hip hop producer I've heard and it shows. He knows Doom's production past and molds his style to fit it with ease. The accordion in the aptly named "Accordion" fits MF's somberness like a glove. Unlike many other producers, he doesn't revel in his own abilities but mostly chooses to get out of the way. Doom always enters within four bars of a track and when he's done, the song ends and quickly transitions to the next. The two are so massively creative that they can't be bothered with the formalities of the traditional song format. They just have too much to do.

For further reading, I recommend SF/J's New Yorker article and the AllHipHop.com interview. If you're interested in more Doom, check out MM Food, his new album coming soon from Rhymesayers. If you're in the Tri-State area, meet me at the MF Doom/Brother Ali show on November 24th at B.B. King's Blues Club in NYC. I'll be the guy trying to take notes from the front row.

October 11, 2004 | Comments (1)

Canadian Food Review

Whilst up in Canada, I decided to sample some of the local food to get an impression of authentic Canadian cuisine. Unfortunately I have no idea what that entails and I wasn't incredibly ambitious about it, so I ended up with a strange mix of foods. Here is my report:

Sometimes I wonder if I spend too much time thinking about food.

October 03, 2004 | Comments (1)