This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

MF Doom – “Operation Doomsday” (Fondle ‘Em Records, 1999)

In April 2011 MF Doom’s Metal Face Records (in conjunction with Stones Throw Records) reissued the heralded underground hip-hop classic “Operation Doomsday”. In this month’s Classics Critiqued I will explore the reasons why I believe the album doesn’t deserve its seemingly unchallenged status as a ‘classic’ album. I will consider all the elements of the music including beats, production, lyrical content and Doom’s flow, I will also discuss the album’s legacy and influence on the current hip-hop generation.

Doom (Daniel Dumile – pronounced Doo-ma-lay) started his career in hip-hop in 1988 when he formed the group KMD with younger brother DJ Subroc and an MC called Rodan. At this point Doom was using the stage name Zev Love X. Rodan soon left the group and was replaced by an MC named Onyx the Birthstone Kid, in this incarnation the group signed to Elektra Records. The band released their debut album “Mr. Hood” in 1991 and their singles ‘Peachfuzz’ and ‘Who Me?’ received heavy video play on Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City. Everything seemed to be going well then in 1993 Subroc was killed by a car while crossing the Long Island expressway and in the same week the group were dropped by Elektra due to  controversial cover art of their second album “Black Bastards”.

In the aftermath Dumile retreated from the hip-hop scene suffering from disillusionment and depression and relocated from New York to Atlanta. Meanwhile, “Black Bastards” was doing the rounds as a bootleg and Doom’s star was rising on the underground hip-hop circuit. In 1997 Doom began free styling at open-mic events in Manhattan wearing a stocking over his head and developing his new persona MF Doom. The stocking became a mask: the ‘MF’ meaning Metal Face. Finally in 1999 he released his debut album “Operation Doomsday”. Initially the album didn’t cause much of a stir but with Fondle ‘Em Records bankrupcy its classic status seemed to grow due to its unavailability yet I challenge the idea that “Operation Doomsday” is a classic.

“Operation Doomsday” is not a bad album; it’s a very solid debut release from a rapper/producer that would go on to rightly dominate underground rap music in the ‘00s. However, there are a number of reasons it isn’t the classic album it held up as. Firstly the more I listen to it the more I’ve found myself feeling that it had all been done before and better. In the early ’90s, acts such as A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr produced similar albums of much higher quality. A Tribe Called Quest’s “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm” (1990) and Gang Starr’s “Step In The Arena” (1991) are fine examples of jazz inspired hip-hop music. So it strikes me as strange that this album is so acclaimed, maybe it was simply good timing as hip-hop moved from one era to the next, “Operation Dommsday” provides critics with a neat link between them. Neither do I think it is Doom’s best album; that award should go to “Madvillainy” (2004), the result of his collaboration with producer/drummer Madlib though if we are just considering his solo albums then I would argue that “Vaudeville Villain” under his Viktor Vaughan alias  is better than “Operation Doomsday” on all fronts.

The Doom character isn’t as developed on “Operation Doomsday” and though this may be an unfair criticism as it’s his debut album, he had been performing as MF Doom for two years and had many years in the wilderness to devise and develop this character. The world that Doom attempts to create on “Operation Doomsday” is one that seems to have been created on the fly and the inconsistant lyrical content leaves the listener unsure of what Doom is driving at. This can cause much confusion as Doom introduces the listener to a whole universe of slang vocabulary and obscure reference points that at the time wasn’t just a Google search away and is still difficult to unravel today. The comic book character meshes better with the music of later Doom albums where he further developed his musical style into something that was truly his own.

The traditional song structures employed on “Operation Doomsday” are uninspiring compared to Doom’s later albums. Here he repeats verses where in the future he would just stop the track completely. Some tracks fade out then the backing track is brought back in for another 30-60 seconds, though this was a technique used to highlight the work of the producer it begins to grate after a few plays and doesn’t add anything to Doom’s compositions.

Despite the many holes I’ve found in the critical acclaim given to “Operation Doomsday”, its reissue last year saw many critics reinforcing the idea that it’s a classic album and rightly giving Doom credit as an influential artist whose music and lyrics have had profound effect on contemporary underground hip-hop. As Ian Cohen said in his Pitchfork review of the reissue, “The album goes a long way toward demonstrating Doom’s incalculable influence on some of the leading lights of current underground hip-hop: Lil’ B has dedicated an entire album to Doom, the lurching production style of Odd Future owes him a heavy debt (most obviously shown in “Odd Toddlers” flipping the same sample as 2004’s “One Beer”), and K.M.D.’s referential raps and playful yet incisive deconstructions of racial politics are a clear influence on Das Racist.” Cohen’s assessment perfectly sums up Doom and the legacy of “Operation Doomsday” and demonstrates this album is still very held in high regard by rock and hip-hop critics.

Listen to “Operation Doomsday” via Spotify – MF Doom – OPERATION: DOOMSDAY (Complete)

Please feel free to let me know your thoughts & opinions on “Operation Doomsday” in the comments section or via the Sonic Fiction Twitter.

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