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Music

The Infinite Gifts Of MF Doom

Rapper MF DOOM performs at a benefit concert for the Rhino Foundation at Central Park's Rumsey Playfield on June 28, 2005 in New York City.
Photo by Peter Kramer/Getty Images

I don’t recall many of the specifics, like what year it was or what song was playing, but I do remember this one particular moment from over a decade ago when I was listening to MF Doom, whose Oct. 31, 2020 death was announced yesterday. Back then, I was playing Madvillainy for what had to be the zillionth time, in, I believe, my bedroom during a summer break from college. I’d had the album for a couple years at that point, and it had earned a spot in one of those Personal Top 10 Albums Of All Time lists I was still youthfully misguided enough to maintain in some amorphous form in my head. As Madvillainy played, I was tracing alongside Doom’s labyrinthine lyrics, attempting to meet his challenge by keeping up with each syllable and inflection that I’d come to know by heart.

It was while following along to one particular bar of one particular song when I felt a little catch in my brain, a feeling familiar to any music lover and to rap lovers specifically. It was one of those moments when the literal meaning of the syllables and words I’d been mouthing along to for years finally clicked, and I got what was actually being said. I don’t think it was some profound line or anything—though, with Doom, it could have been. Maybe it was something like “Shots of the scotch from out the square shot glasses” going from just a percussive parade of S sounds to a crystalized image, or realizing the slick and oblique reference to eye-patched pirates in “Just keep your eye out, like aye aye captain,” or comprehending that “They call them strangers, anybody talk to them end up in some danger” was a subtly brilliant flip on the idea of stranger danger, which followed a verse about hypocrisy in policing that never once mentioned the word “cop” or any synonym.

Again, I don’t remember the specific line or song, but I do remember coming to the realization that, up to that moment, I’d had only a parrot’s understanding of that particular Doom lyric, and I remember the feeling that realization inspired in me: pure, giddy wonderment and joy that I still had so much to discover, and the instant desire to go about discovering all of the album’s remaining secrets by mastering every line. I set out to do just that, and for the next couple weeks, I listened to Madvillainy over and over again, until I’d gotten to the point where I could recite the whole thing from front to back, knowing not just what sounds to make but also what all those sounds meant.

This process mostly consisted of pulling up the lyrics to a given song on OHHLA.com and reading and rapping along until I got to the point where I no longer needed the lyric sheet. But for a few of the most challenging, most dauntingly dense songs, I would instead open the song’s lyrics tab in my iTunes library and transcribe it myself. I’d listen to a bar or two, pause the track, copy down what he’d said, rewind the track, play it again, make revisions to my transcription as needed, listen to the next few bars, pause the track, copy those lyrics down, rewind, and so on and so on until I had it all down. I studied the lyrics to “Meat Grinder” and “Curls” and “Rhinestone Cowboy” and the rest more intensely than I studied anything in school, and the experience was infinitely rewarding because Doom’s texts are infinitely deep.

The experience I’m talking about here—the pleasurable epiphany when your understanding of a lyric goes from phonetic-only to phonetic and semantic, and the funny feeling you get when realizing you didn’t actually know a thing you thought you knew—happens in all genres of lyrical music, but it’s especially prevalent in rap. Rappers, especially those of the technical virtuoso tradition, unleash wave after wave of words at listeners, hypnotizing them with the words’ sounds and rhythms and rhymes and meanings. The beauty of rap is in the interplay of all those elements, how literally awesome each individual aspect can be in its own right and how magical the effect is when compounded by the ways in which they interact with one another.

Nobody embodied this unique beauty of rap better than MF Doom. He packed so much into every line—so many sounds, so many words, so many stacked meanings on top of and underneath the words, so many sly gestures towards and references to even more sounds and words and ideas that were present in their conspicuous absence—that there is something new to hear or learn or discover even on the zillionth listen, even when you think you already know it all. To this day, a decade-plus after I resolved to commit the lyrics of Madvillainy to memory, I could still probably transcribe the vast majority of that album without even listening to it, and could do the same for a dozen or so other classic Doom songs from across his enormous discography. I believe this makes me a completely standard Doom fan, because by definition being a Doom fan means noticing the genius and limitless depth of his music, and being compelled to try to match the challenge Doom set by fully submerging yourself into it.

I never completed my mission of totally mastering Madvillainy, because the goal—mastering the infinite—was necessarily impossible. Still, I continue to strive toward it every time I play it or any other Doom album, and I learn a little more about him, myself, life, and the world whenever I do. A single MF Doom song is an inexhaustible font—of joy, of humor, of wisdom, of virtuosity, and of so much more. He gave us hundreds of such fonts before he died, and though he will never write and record another, what remains will forever be more than enough.