After a prolific period in the early '00s, DOOM has become one of those artists who releases full albums so rarely that each one can't help but feel like a major event. Even setting aside the long promised collaboration with Ghostface Killah and the follow-up to Madvillainy, it's already going on four years since DOOM released a proper album of his own. For now, Key To The Kuffs is as close as we'll get. Expectations may have been unreasonably high for something that was more casually and rapidly finished than almost any DOOM project ever, but this doesn't change how muddled and just-below-standards the actual product is.
Produced by Jneiro Jarel, the collaboration dubbed JJ DOOM is the kind of DOOM record you can set your watch to. It's almost like a sampler platter of everything DOOM records have done in the past but without the same spark of inspiration and originality. The general British theme of the whole project was apparently inspired by DOOM's troubles with returning to the U.S. due to visa problems after a 2010 U.K. tour (not to mention, he was born there and has many fans/collaborators from that country) yet this theme isn't as focused as the food theme of MM..Food or the monster movie samples that unified the underrated King Geedorah project. Just as the production and rhymes aren't as good as past DOOM records, this attempt at a unified theme is hampered by the fact that it's been done before, and done better.
Lest this whole thing degenerate into a compare-and-contrast bitch fest, let me just skip to the chase and say that Key To The Kuffs is worthy of hanging in there with DOOM's impressive discography even if it isn't one of the highlights. If you're a fan of the Supervillain, you'll enjoy this record. Jneiro Jarel's production leans on programmed beats and electronic flourishes, recalling the best moments of the Viktor Vaughn records while also having its own feel. As I'm not familiar with his work outside of JJ DOOM, I can't speak to how much he brought to this project, except to say that he's as good a fit as Danger Mouse but not the dream team match-up of Madvillain. Meanwhile, DOOM's rhymes can be as sharp as ever, they just aren't always. I don't think this is a case of, “hey, at this point in his career, we're so used to him that a lot of this stuff can feel like he's going through the motions even if he isn't.” Indeed, I'd only nominate 'Guv'nor' and 'Bite The Thong' from this album to go down in history with DOOM's career highlights.
Despite the attempt at a unifying theme and production style, JJ DOOM ends up being the most schizophrenic and least satisfying project in DOOM's discography. I want to love it but that's not the same as actually loving it. To put it another way, whenever I listen to it, I do genuinely enjoy it...then when I sit down to collect my thoughts, I only remember flaws and things that bug me. The most egregious problem is that the record starts off so strongly and shrugs to a close. On first listen, you'd be forgiven for thinking Key To The Kuffs is brilliant, charging out of the gate as it does with a classic DOOM-style one-two punch of an opening instrumental that sets the tone followed by a commanding track with DOOM letting loose in peak form...but then the album ends with a tossed off one-two punch of the forgettable “could've gone anywhere on the album” instrumental 'Viberian Sun, Pt. II' and the mediocre 'Wash Your Hands.' The latter of which doesn't even feel like a proper closing song until the last 45 seconds of the track are abruptly highjacked by vocal samples in an attempt to tie the whole record together.
We had to wait so many years for a new DOOM full length and what we got wasn't so much the next version of Madvillainy (or even Born Like This) as it is a fun but casual record that doesn't dim the reputations of JJ or DOOM but does nothing to brighten them, either. Key To The Kuffs throws you for a loop because it starts out so strongly, seeming to have a sense of flow and purpose, and then peters to a close as carelessly as a free mixtape download. Again, perhaps my expectations do continue to color my perspective; after all, I do like this record when all is said and done, and I've listened to it off and on since its release. It's just that what I wanted was a full dinner and what I got instead was someone trying to pass off soup and salad as a meal. And while I'm no longer certain DOOM is hungry (in the 'rap game' sense of being hungry), I sure am.