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Holy Hell! Operation: Doomsday Turns 20

Holy Hell! Operation: Doomsday Turns 20

Marks the true arrival of a seminal talent, and the start of a run of records of such quality that they would make the artist arguably the definitive craftsman of early-aughts hip-hop.

Daniel Dumile entered the mid-‘90s traumatically, having lost both his brother and his record deal as KMD, ending up homeless and artistically adrift. Filled with resentment, the rapper gradually worked his way back into the underground, finally emerging at the end of the decade with a new sobriquet, MF DOOM, so named for the supervillain of Marvel comic books. Operation: Doomsday was Dumile’s first release since the abortive Black Bastards in 1993, making it in some ways a second debut album. Yet if years of disillusionment and pain informed it, the album came to epitomize DOOM’s sound: heavily rooted in warm samples of classic funk and bouncy ‘80s synths, suffused with a laid-back charm that sounded like a work of extreme contentment, not strife.

After a brief introductory skit tying the artist to his comic-book namesake, the title track lays down the album’s sound. Wielding a sample of Sade’s “Kiss of Life,” the track ripples smoothly, disrupted only by old-school scratches and breaks. DOOM throws down rhymes that are about the usual subjects of growing up hard and discovering music, boasting he is so confident in his work that he will “Release a statement to the press, let the rest know who did that.” Yet there’s no forcefulness to his delivery, none of the stunting anger or come-at-me swagger that tend to undergird such self-promotion. Instead, he sounds as if he’s reclining in a chair while rapping, with his most animated emotions being boyish excitement as he rushes a line here or there. At times, DOOM sounds downright giddy, as when he suddenly dings “doo-doo-doo-doo-doo” along with the melody of his sample. Wu-Tang Clan may have pioneered the marriage of kung-fu and hip-hop, but it is DOOM who sounds like a wizened master, so secure in his skills that he feels no need to boast of them.

This blend of beyond-his-years sagacity and prodigal precociousness extends, hilariously, to topics of drug dealing and other illicit activities. “Rhymes Like Dimes” shows off DOOM’s powers of free association, casually blending lines about slinging dope, pimping and rapping until it’s all the same subject. He teases wannabes, saying “Classical slapstick rappers need Chapstick/ A lot of ‘em sound like they in a talent show/ So I give ‘em something to remember like the Alamo,” then pivots a few lines later to brag about his bedroom skills when he “G-shocks her biological clock.” “Who You Think I Am?” involves all of DOOM’s Monsta Island Czars crew as they adopt personas based on famous kaiju, and it’s amusing to hear rappers like “Rodan” rushing their lines to put across intensity, only for DOOM’s King Geedorah to enter and establish himself as king of the monsters with eerie calm while spitting lines like “Flew in from Monster Island just to rag shit with jet lag.”

Musically, DOOM’s choice of samples consistently reinforces the mood of each track. “Red and Gold” layers fat L.A. synths under string samples to create a fittingly autumnal sound for DOOM’s reminiscences. “Hey!” is cheesy TV horror, all trebly, droning synths with a recurring sample of Scooby Doo’s grunted “Huh?” to compound the goofiness. “Tick, Tick…” adjusts the tempo throughout to match MF Grimm’s chants of “Speed it up, slow it up” and to constantly send verses into sudden lurches as gears shift up and down. DOOM handled production duties himself, and his beat-making is every bit as casual in its command of tone and complexity as his verses. That DOOM built his beats around samples feels subtly defiant for work made in 1999; crafted as sampling was on the wane due to increased attention on copyright and threats of legal action, Operation: Doomsday feels like a throwback to an earlier age of restless hip-hop invention. DOOM’s sampling is not intricate in the way that, say, the Dust Brothers’ classics are, and in fact the rapper rarely uses more than two or three samples per track. But with those spare selections he builds out richer arrangements, adding in fatter synth bounces and jazzy fills to add to the retro atmosphere.

To listen to the album in a vacuum, you’d be left with almost no indication of the strife that informed it, with the sole exception of “?” An explicit ode to DOOM’s late brother, DJ Subroc, “?” starts with a verse by DOOM that mostly concerns himself and his own ambivalent reaction to posturing emcees, only for a guest verse from Kurious and his own closing rhymes to shout out Subroc. DOOM finds the most idiosyncratic ways of paying tribute, suggesting that his brother is still pulling ladies in the afterlife because women still come up to DOOM asking if he’s his brother, before drifting off into wistful remembrances that are clearly personal but that he can sketch out in just a line with a reference to wearing Bally shoes. Perhaps the time that elapsed between the tragedy that befell Dumile and his return to recording allowed the initial pain and bitterness to subside, but “?” contains only love. If Operation: Doomsday got revenge on the industry that abandoned DOOM, it did so by showcasing his ebullient energy and graceful mastery. It would mark the true arrival of a seminal talent, and the start of a run of records of such quality that they would make the artist arguably the definitive craftsman of early-aughts hip-hop.

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