The rap landscape was irrevocably altered last week when it was revealed that MF DOOM, born Daniel Dumile (pronounced doom-ee-lay), died of undisclosed causes at age 49 on Halloween of 2020. Though he had made himself relatively scarce in recent years, the enigmatic MC and producer’s death provoked an outpouring that has made his towering legacy plain. Artists from Busta Rhymes to Thom Yorke have paid tribute to DOOM, whose influence and artistry transcend the genre in which he operated.
DOOM is perhaps best summed up as “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper,” another accolade affirmed by those who have mourned his loss. He earned it, in part, by releasing one of the most beloved albums of the 21st century: Madvillainy, his 2004 collaboration with DJ/producer Madlib, which the duo released as Madvillain. It’s one of the many acclaimed collabs of DOOM’s career, from his early days with trio KMD (as Zev Love X) to team-ups with Danger Mouse, Czarface, Bishop Nehru and many more. And his solo career was just as kaleidoscopic, as he released solo albums not only as MF DOOM, but also under pseudonyms Viktor Vaughn and King Geedorah.
Ultimately, DOOM will echo through the decades because he was larger than life. The masked rapper allowed himself to be subsumed by his art, committing wholly to his villainous persona(s), and crafting a narrative that made his music all the more vivid and engrossing. He was one of the funniest, most inventive MCs to ever pick up a microphone, a true original who essentially created a mythology all his own. No selection of DOOM tracks will ever feel like a sufficient microcosm of his inimitable output, but that won’t stop us from celebrating 25 of the supervillain’s best songs, from Madvillainy hits to his vast assortment of features and deep cuts.
DOOM features on this track from The Herbaliser’s 2002 album Something Wicked This Way Comes, in which the U.K. duo lend the supervillain a beat that sounds as metallic as his infamous mask. Needless to say, DOOM does not return said beat in good condition, opting instead to absolutely level it. Not content to merely make his lyrical mastery look easy, the MC also states it for the record: “Spilt a shot, made the pen lines runny / A ill plot that’s 10 times Ben Stein money, funny / How he rips the scripts with a straight face / With more rhymes than is lines in your database.” Though DOOM’s contribution feels more like a labor of love than anything (“Pay your fares, give The Herbalisers their shares / And y’all could pay DOOM in beers, cheers!” he signs off), it’s clear his collaborators called in the right assassin to lay waste to their instrumental.
Madvillainy’s closer and longest track, “Rhinestone Cowboy” is peppered with applause and crowd sounds, as if DOOM is performing an encore at the end of the album. “Got more soul than a sock with a hole,” he boasts, referencing everyone from Ace Ventura to Archie Bell & The Drells over Madlib’s downright beautiful beat. The song is something of a companion to “Fancy Clown” (featured further down), as both find DOOM equating his masked alter ego to an archetypical figure: “Let the beat blast, she told him wear the mask / He said you bet your sweet ass / It’s made of fine chrome alloy / Find him on the grind, he’s the rhinestone cowboy,” he concludes, to a thunderous ovation.
DOOM rubs elbows with esteemed company on this Prince Paul track, the full title of which is “Chubb Rock Please Pay Paul His $2200 You Owe Him (People, Places and Things).” Impressive verses from Chubb Rock and Wordsworth take up the song’s first half, but it’s the supervillain who rides Prince Paul’s clattering beat into the sunset, name-checking Dave Chappelle and “Screech, Saved by the Bell,” Cool Hand Luke and “Buk” (aka Charles Bukowski), and Mork from Ork and Björk along the way. A dense web of rhymes and references, DOOM’s verse concludes with a hat tip to Rudyard Kipling: “In case you just tuned in, once again / We’re here with the Supervillain, known as hip-hop’s Gunga Din.” As ever, his lyrical skill and mythmaking are inextricable, each amplifying the other.
A highlight of KMD’s 1991 debut Mr. Hood, “Peachfuzz” consists of Zev Love X (a 20-year-old DOOM) and Onyx the Birthstone Kid good-naturedly acknowledging their youth (and scarce facial hair) while asserting their lyrical and romantic prowess. DOOM’s rhymes are intricate and relentlessly kinetic already, making lines like “If you loan me a ear, I’ll return it with interest” self-evident. His youthful confidence and lightning-quick wits mask the chip on his shoulder, a desire for respect that would become a demand upon the dissolution of Zev Love X and his subsequent rebirth as DOOM.
Madlib interweaves a couple of ‘70s soul samples to form this Madvillainy track’s lovely backbone, but the main attraction here is DOOM’s high-concept storytelling. Performing as Viktor Vaughn, he calls his girlfriend out for cheating on him with none other than DOOM (“Don’t make me have to pound his tin crown face in,” he threatens). It’s a testament to DOOM’s (or is it Vik’s?) unrivaled creativity that he could turn a straightforward Z.Z. Hill couplet (“You’ve been trippin’ around, uptown / Wooin’ some fancy clown”) into an elaborate romantic rivalry between two of his own personas. And despite all its imaginative artifice, “Fancy Clown” still evokes the gravity of an actual imploding relationship, a mix of emotional truth and comic invention only DOOM could pull off.
Originally releasing it as “Vomit,” DOOM reimagined this track for inclusion on MM.. FOOD, where it’s nestled near the end of the tracklist. “Vomitspit” is all about effortlessness, from its laid-back, piano loop-based beat to DOOM’s stream-of-consciousness flow. He can do this in his sleep, as he remarks in the opening couplet: “It’s the beat, he hear it in his sleep sometimes / Blare it in your Jeep so your peoples can stare at them rhymes.” The density and precision of DOOM’s rhyme schemes are staggering, as he packs more consonance and internal rhyme into a few lines than others would entire verses, elevating conventional street swagger to true poetry (“Gift for the grind, criminal mind shifty / Swift with the nine through a 59FIFTY”).
The opening track from DOOM’s sole release as King Geedorah, “Fazers” features swaggering bars over a serene beat built on a regal strings sample. DOOM brings his three-headed monster alter ego to towering life, menacing listeners like, “When he spit electrics, don’t be in y’all saunas.” That’s just the beginning of his vivid character creation: He embodies the deadly dragon (“Who needs a heater? Catch ‘em with bare hands / These same hands that make razors out beer cans”), demanding adulation for each of his heads: “All hail the king, and give him three cheers, fam / Like ‘Hip, hip, hooray!’” The attention to detail DOOM pays to such stylized storytelling is exceptional.
Queens trio 3rd Bass (MC Serch, Pete Nice and DJ Richie Rich) scored their best-loved track off a term DOOM (then Zev Love X) originated—“Zev Lover, gave it the first light,” Pete Nice acknowledges in his verse. Backed by a rollicking, Aretha Franklin-sampling beat, DOOM owns his invention—“A Gas Face can either be a smile or a smirk / When appears, a monkey wrench to work one’s clockwork”—and contributes another, inspiring a future 3rd Bass/KMD collab with the line, “KMD and 3rd Bass is just ace in the hole / I mean soul, so make the Gas Face.” Even a nascent DOOM was influential, his rhymes both thoughtfully oblique and infectiously energetic.
DOOM’s Adult Swim-backed collaborative album with Danger Mouse, 2005’s THE MOUSE & THE MASK, has highlights aplenty, from infectious opener “El Chupa Nibre” to the sardonic Space Ghost takedown “Space Hos.” But what stands out the most from DANGERDOOM’s sole release is “Mince Meat,” which is made out of a Danger Mouse beat that matches DOOM’s laser focus. The masked MC slices its pitched-up orchestral sample to shreds, sounding locked-in throughout as he makes good on his repeated threats to “make mince meat out of that beat, Mouse!” Even a couplet like “The bounty on this pro was mills and double dollars / Vil’ spilled muddled flows that befuddled scholars” is littered with subtle allusions and internal rhyme, an embarrassment of lyrical riches.
The final track from De La Soul’s acclaimed seventh album The Grind Date, “Rock Co.Kane Flow” features a piano-pounding Jake One beat and a pair of killer DOOM verses. “From the top of the key for three, villain! / Been on in the game as long as he can wheelie a Schwinn,” he raps, later taunting, “He eat rappers like part of a complete breakfast / Their rhymes ain’t worth the weight of they cheap necklace.” There aren’t many rappers who could so effortlessly steal a song out from under an all-timer act like De La Soul, but DOOM lays claim to “Rock Co.Kane Flow” with ease.
A Madvillain loosie that made its way around the internet before finally seeing an official release in 2016, “Avalanche” gave fans hope for a Madvillainy follow-up that sadly never materialized. It would have fit right in on that classic album, comprising pure, unadulterated DOOM over a dreamy and hypnotic Madlib beat. The villain is having a blast here, flexing his skills (“MC extraordinaire, technique sort of rare”) while remaining perpetually playful. “Time out, okay, time back in,” he raps as the beat momentarily drops out halfway through the track, rhyming “wheezin’” with “tetrahedron” a few lines later. Who does that? Nobody but DOOM.
An early Madvillainy standout that samples Daedelus instrumental “Experience,” “Accordion” is made particularly memorable by Madlib’s minimalist production, which makes catchy magic out of spare drums and a melodic loop of the wheezing titular instrument. Meanwhile, an effortlessly deft DOOM shouts out Hanna-Barbera characters and observes that he’s “Giving y’all nothing but the lick like two broads / Got more lyrics than the church got ‘Ooh, Lord’s / And he hold the mic and your attention like two swords.” It’s idiosyncratic and irresistible in equal measure—essential DOOM.
The first proper track off DOOM’s final solo album BORN LIKE THIS, “GAZZILLION EAR” is a feat of both production and performance. There are few “oh, shit!” moments in DOOM’s discography quite like the 1:21 mark of this song, where the beat shifts abruptly from J Dilla’s “Dig It” (which itself sampled Brenton Wood’s 1967 song “Trouble”) to one of the late producer’s most iconic tracks, the Giorgio Moroder-inspired “Phantom of the Synths.” DOOM owns both beats, barely stopping to breathe between dense, rhyme-laden bars like, “Villain here, have ‘em shrillin’ in fear / And won’t stop top illin’ till he a gazillionaire.”
A highlight from MM.. FOOD’s homestretch, “Rapp Snitch Knishes” features Mr. Fantastik, an elusive DOOM collaborator whose identity has never been confirmed. The duo have a grand old time calling out rats over a celebratory beat, built on a sped-up guitar riff from David Matthews’ 1977 rendition of “Space Oddity,” and buoyed by Nile Rodgers-esque strums and funky bass. DOOM’s ice-cold, complex threats (“Informer, keep it up and get tested / Pop through your bubble vest or double-breasted”) contrast with the track’s champagne-popping vibe, making them all the more menacing, particularly to the loose-lipped MCs liable to end up on his plate.
There’s no word but “explosive” for this song, the crown jewel of DOOM’s 2018 Czarface collab album Czarface Meets Metalface. The villain bats clean-up after verses from Inspectah Deck and Esoteric, speeding and slowing all over the propulsive beat without ever losing his iron-fisted grip, and dispensing the sage wisdom of an elder statesman (“Got faith in the vessel but know when to keep rowin’ / Yeah, and get up out your own way when deliverin’ a poem”). DOOM brings the song to a close like an MC with nothing left to prove, pronouncing, “Metal Face squad drone, tell the real ones, ‘Shalom’ / In a calm tone, bomb thrown.”
The first proper song and title track off DOOM’s full-length debut under alias Viktor Vaughn (a play on the full name of Doctor Victor von Doom), “Vaudeville Villain” features a striking, guitar-forward beat from King Honey. Its two-and-a-half minutes overflow with lyrical prowess, from the opening salvo—“V. Vaughn, the travelin’ Vaudeville Villain / Who don’t give a flyin’ fuck who ain’t not feelin’ him”—onward. As ever, DOOM says it best in his own words, dismissing other rappers’ work in favor of his own: “That’s no ditty, Vaughn so witty / The way he take no prisoners and show no pity.” Even as Viktor Vaughn, DOOM’s singular eccentricities shine through, as seen in the song’s references to Dan Aykroyd and anime, among other far-flung subjects.
A highlight from the back half of BORN LIKE THIS, “THAT’S THAT” features acrobatic lyrics so electric, they make its relatively subdued, strings-based beat sound scintillating. DOOM essentially spends the entirety of the song demonstrating that his resumé speaks for itself, slinging syllables at a rate so overwhelming, it’ll make you “lend sympathy to limper Simple Simon rhyming MCs” yourself. He croons in the outro, “As you listen to these crazy tracks / Check them stats, then you know where I’m at / And that’s that.” There’s no arguing with that.
DOOM self-produced this standout from his debut album Operation: Doomsday, incorporating an Isaac Hayes sample and a verse from his frequent collaborator Kurious. The then-fledgling villain spends his first verse forging his roguish persona (“He cleans his metal mask with gasoline, they after ‘em / Last seen pulling chicks like a fiend pull a fast one”), but it’s the second verse that makes this song so special. DOOM shows us the man behind the mask, so to speak, looking back on life with his brother and fellow KMD member, Dingilizwe “DJ Subroc” Dumile, whose accidental death at age 19 forever altered his older brother’s life. It’s one of DOOM’s most earnest verses, all the more powerful for its plainspoken humanity: “Remember when you went and got the dark blue Ballys / I had all the different color Cazals and Gazelles,” DOOM recalls fondly, ending with a particularly poignant couplet: “I keep a flick of you with the machete sword in your hand / Everything is going according to plan, man.”
It’s only fitting that one of DOOM’s most impressive displays comes in the form of this untitled (sort of) Vaudeville Villain bonus track, the first half of which consists almost entirely of the calming sounds of a thunderstorm. Once DOOM enters, the track turns into more of a tornado: The beat switches for each of his four verses, but his lyrical excellence remains the same throughout, as DOOM self-reflexively observes (“Villain who always win, at least he stay consistent”). He melts down slang, metaphors and cultural references into liquid metal he then shapes into a razor-sharp blade, impressing even himself as he spits: “Good googly moogly, see that loogie? / Yeah, but keep it on the D.L. Hughley / You don’t watch her, he might house her like Doogie / Just to cut her loosie like, swoosh, Mitsurugi!”
This Operation: Doomsday cut features one of the most dastardly beats DOOM ever destroyed, a dark and ominous instrumental that samples the Scooby Doo theme song. Its lyrics are littered with verbal acrobatics (“I only play the games that I win at / And stay the same with more rhymes than there’s ways to skin cats / As a matter of fact, let me rephrase: / With more rhymes than ways to fillet felines these days”) and laugh-out-loud wisecracks (“Call me Mista Bent / I’m at where your sister went”), down to the last line, where DOOM melds the imagined with the all-too-real: “To all my brothers who is doin’ unsettlin’ bids / You could have got away with it if it was not for them / Meddlin’ kids!”
It’s hard to argue against this song as the best DOOM ever released under his Viktor Vaughn moniker. A centerpiece of Vaudeville Villain, “Saliva” gives DOOM a regal RJD2 beat to work with, and he comes out swinging, swearing over blaring horns, “Vaughn never been a duck-’n’-diver / He spit on the mic, yuck, saliva!” He even calls himself out, lobbing accusations at DOOM from Vaughn’s vantage point: “Phony MCs use a stand-in / Leave him hangin like if I ain’t know where his hands been,” he raps, alluding to the “DOOM-posters” Dumile has acknowledged he sometimes sent to perform at shows in his place.
DOOM sets the tone for one of his very best records on this MM.. FOOD (an anagram for “M.F. DOOM”) opener, an epic combination of beat and bars. The first of the album’s many food-focused extended metaphors, “Beef Rap” finds DOOM delivering warnings about both literal and figurative beef’s health risks, over an ominous beat he made himself (under his production alias Metal Fingers). Lyrically exceptional, even for DOOM (“It’s a miracle how he get so lyrical,” he matter-of-factly observes in verse two), this song contains one of the most iconic couplets the villain ever delivered: “He wears a mask just to cover the raw flesh / A rather ugly brother with flows that’s gorgeous.”
This classic Operation: Doomsday track has a downright celebratory feel, from its lush, funky beat (built on a synth riff sampled from a Quincy Jones song) to DOOM’s coolly braggadocious bars about transacting with his raps the way others deal drugs. The supervillain is basically fully formed here, having already mastered his craft, and takes every opportunity to say so (or imagine that others are): “This fly flow take practice like Tae Bo with Billy Blanks / ‘Oh, you’re too kind!’ ‘Really? Thanks!’” he asks and answers, a natural storyteller injecting drama into even such a foregone conclusion.
The jazzy “Doomsday,” which features a Sade sample and soulful vocals from Pebbles the Invisible Girl, is one of DOOM’s first and still best-loved songs, in which the supervillain both begins his reign (“Bound to go three-plat, came to destroy rap,” he warns) and foresees his eventual fall. It’s stunning how hard these lyrics hit in light of his death: “On Doomsday, ever since the womb / till I’m back where my brother went, that’s what my tomb will say / Right above my government, Dumile / Either unmarked or engraved, hey, who’s to say?” It’s like if David Bowie had put “Blackstar” on his very first album.
It all comes together on this, the zenith of Madvillainy. Madlib’s meticulous crate-digging production and DOOM’s unbelievably intricate rhymes combine to sublime effect that even DOOM himself has to acknowledge: “The beat is so butter, peep the slow cutter / As he utter the calm flow,” he raps, promising death by a thousand cuts to any MC opposing him, and later swearing, “And he won’t stop ‘til he got the masses / And show ‘em what they know not through flows of hot molasses.” His signature song, “All Caps” helped ensure DOOM’s eponymous demand will continue to be met long after he’s gone: “Just remember ALL CAPS when you spell the man name.”
Scott Russell is an associate music editor at Paste and he’ll come up with something clever later. He’s on Twitter, if you’re into tweets: @pscottrussell.