What the hell happened to Daniel Dumile? People used to think MF DOOM was slacking if he only released one album a year, but sometime after The Mouse and the Mask, the dude just up and vanished. That led to about three years' worth of fanbase-angering concerts featuring alleged impostors, theoretically planned albums promising Ghostface collaborations or a KMD revival that never arrived, scattered production work heavy on already-familiar Special Herbs leftovers, and a remixed Madvillainy faux-sequel with enough good-to-great Madlib beats to make you wish DOOM actually recorded new lyrics over them. The last time he went this far underground, his brother had just been killed and Elektra had booted KMD off the roster because Black Bastards was too controversial and uncommercial. So what could have provoked him to lay low in the latter half of this decade right when he seemed to be hitting critical pop-culture mass, limiting himself in recent years to sparse guest verses and the occasional official dispatch that he wasn't, in fact, dead?
I don't have the answer to that question, but judging from the grimy, sinister lyricism displayed on Born Like This, at least this much is apparent: DOOM is not coming back just to dick around. It takes a little while to realize this, since the album feels strangely underformed on initial listens: A lot of tracks are one-verse quickies if they even feature DOOM at all, there's the occasional whiff of the overfamiliar (the 500th repurposing of Dilla's "Lightworks"; an appearance of the three-year-old Ghostface/DOOM track "Angelz"; a beat that samples ESG's "UFO"), and the whole thing's just barely over 40 minutes. But there's something in DOOM's voice-- a focused rasp that's subtly grown slightly more ragged and intense-- that reveals something darker and deeper than the cartoon world in which he made himself a jocular adversary. Brak, Japanese space monsters, and the Fantastic Four have given way here to Charles Bukowski, whose apocalyptic "Dinosauria, We" gives the album its title and acts as the intro to the pivotal cut "Cellz". In that track, DOOM punctuates one of the most tightly knotted verses of his career by making note of those who miss the deeper meaning: "Metalface Finster, playin' with the dirty money/ Sinister, don't know what he sayin' but the words be funny."
Yeah, Born Like This is still pretty funny; anyone who's amused by the kinds of strange linguistic and lyrical parallels and internal rhymes nobody else would think of has a good repertoire of quotable lines to draw from. But there's a stronger undercurrent of bitterness and a downturn in comedy, some of which feels tied in to a renewed malevolence in his villainous guise and some of which speaks towards something more personal. "Once sold an inbred skinhead a n----r joke/ Plus a brand-new chrome smoker with the triggers broke," he spits in "Gazzillion Ear", an admission that partially echoes the same concerns that led Dave Chappelle to take himself off TV and is followed up on fleetingly in "Ballskin": "Chrome grown men doin' business with Anglo Sax'n'em/ Lackin' swing but that banjo's so relaxin'."
And the overall subject matter can get grimier than Madvillainy converts are used to. "Absolutely" envisions a widely organized revenge plot against the entire legal system-- from snitches to police to judges-- where offending parties get their lattes poisoned and their tongues ripped out. "Rap Ambush" compares his M.O. to an insurgent attacking troops with guerilla tactics. And "Batty Boyz" features more concentrated homophobia than damn near any hip-hop track I've heard this decade, even if it's a little too goofy to be excessively hateful-- it's all aimed at Superman, Batman, and Robin on some hybrid "Rapper's Delight"/Seduction of the Innocent business, though it could also be a metaphor clowning on the ripped, shirtless-posing "homo thug" MCs DOOM considers adversaries. ("Batty Boyz" also samples a Jeff Dunham routine; between this and the Larry the Cable Guy clips in last year's Jake One collab "Get 'Er Done" it's possible that DOOM has tried to tone down his comedic streak by invoking comedians that aren't actually funny.)
The more time you spend with Born Like This, the less the flaws actually feel like flaws and more like interesting diversions. "Yessir" is the track with the "UFO" sample and features Raekwon going solo, but the Chef sounds focused and fierce even if it feels like he's been beamed in from a completely different album. "Angelz" isn't necessarily improved with an added boom-clap kick to bolster its Charlie's Angels soundtrack loop, but hearing Ghostface and DOOM pull off abstract storytelling raps on the same track never gets old. And on an album filled with great production-- including four superb contributions from Jake One, Madlib assembling some top-notch gritty, noir-caliber soul jazz ambience on "Absolutely" and some of DOOM's most wide-ranging and bugged-out production yet (dude even fucks with warped Auto-Tune and Run-DMC drum machines on "Supervillainz")-- the out-of-the-vaults Dilla beat turns out to be the best. Not "Lightworks" (which DOOM rocks anyways), but "Gazzillion Ear", which makes inspired jumps between haunted-house soul and Midnight Express Moroder like it's no big deal.
It's funny that Born Like This starts off feeling unfinished and, a couple listens later, starts to resonate as strongly as anything he's done since Madvillainy. I don't know if Born Like This arose from disillusionment or fatigue or something else, but whatever caused DOOM to scale back his output and go off the grid, he's only come back from it sharper, stronger, and more powerful than before. Villains don't really die, they just emerge from the rubble even more determined to make the world see their way.
— Nate Patrin, April 6, 2009