That Man in a Mask with Labyrinthine Rhymes to Cast

  • Kelefa Sanneh
  • The New York Times
  • April 07, 2004

In "The Princess Bride," André the Giant played (what else?) a gentle giant named Fezzik, who was addicted to the pleasures of rhyme. Fezzik's verse eventually inspires an ultimatum from his perpetually peeved comrade, Vizzini, played by Wallace Shawn, who declares, "No more rhymes, now, I mean it."

Fezzik can't help responding, "Anybody want a peanut?"

Like Fezzik, the rapper MF Doom understands the deformative power of rhyme, which has a tendency to warp even the most straightforward thoughts. He delivers long, free-associative verses full of sideways leaps and unexpected twists. You think you know where he's heading and what each sentence will mean when it ends. Then it bends.

On Monday night he headlined a sold-out concert at the B. B. King Blues Club and Grill, unfurling his long, hypnotic lines and inviting the rapt crowd to get lost in the words.

During "Great Day," he rapped: "Couldn't find a pen, had to think of a new trick/This one he wrote in cold blood, with a toothpick." But there was more: "On second thought, it's too thick." He wasn't finished yet: "His assistants said, `Doom, you sick.' " And finally, to make sure no one was still following along: "He said, `True,' through acoustics."

MF Doom first made his name as Zev Love X, part of the early-90's hip-hop group KMD, but since then he has burrowed into the hip-hop underground, assuming new identities (his alter egos include King Geedorah and Viktor Vaughn) while cultivating a cult audience. This concert celebrated Doom's new album, "Madvillainy" (Stone's Throw), a delirious collaboration with the producer Madlib, who adds matter to Doom's mind games, clatter to Doom's rhyme games.

Madlib is a rapper, too, and along with J Dilla (a k a Jay Dee), he performed a casual, surreal opening set. (Last year those two rapper-producers adopted the collective name Jaylib and released the appealing off-center album "Champion Sound.") You can tell that Madlib thinks like a producer, playing with sonic patterns, not sense; his verses are full of unexpected open places, unspoken spaces.

But while Madlib and J Dilla were only fitfully entertaining, Doom was riveting, from the moment he emerged wearing his version of the standard hip-hop get-up: black T-shirt, red do-rag, metal mask. He hardly talked to the audience or paused to regroup, and it was impossible to tell what he was thinking behind that mask. At one point he enthused, "The beat is retarded," - this was high praise - and then he submerged himself in rhyme once again, daring the audience to follow along, and swallow the song.