Perhaps the most notoriously enigmatic masked rapper that hip hop has ever seen, Daniel Dumille (better known as MF DOOM) embarked on his second side project album in 2003, this time under the pseudonym Viktor Vaughn with a release titled Vaudeville Villain.
Previously in Dumille’s releases both responsibilities of rapping and producing were handled by the man himself, but Vaudeville Villain sees a few of his collaborators handling the beats, allowing the masked villain to fully concentrate his efforts on throwing down verses. This is exactly what he does during the album’s first few seconds on “Vaudeville Villain”, which simply contains one long, sprawling verse of abstract and comedic rhymes. Viktor Vaughn showcases a kind of intellectually pop-cultured brag through the track, as well as firing shots at other mainstream acts – “Viktor the director flip a script like Rob Reiner / The way a lotta dudes rhyme their name should be ‘knob shiner’” There are other rhymes throughout Vaudeville Villain which I’m sure only operate to trigger confused reactions from listeners, especially this couplet near the end of “The Drop” – “Woopdie-do flows do fifty like a hooptie do / Groupie crews try to figure out from which coop he flew”
Initially Vaudeville Villain seems to have a vague theme of introducing Vaughn’s character, whereas the second half loosely references Dumille’s past. And typical of a MF DOOM release, the verses are filled with abstract references, bizarre rhyming patterns and a flow that is impressively consistent through all 14 tracks that Viktor Vaughn leads on. Dumille also makes a point to his mainstream counterparts in 2003, that hooks and choruses aren’t always necessary to create memorable numbers – Vaudeville Villain is 100% verses. As the album progresses, we become more and more aware of Viktor Vaughn’s subtle, insidious manner, especially on “Let Me Watch” where Vaughn goes on a date with his “cousin’s friend’s friend” and despite the two having feelings for one another, Vaughn ruins everything by trash-talking her. The track ends with ‘Nikki’ stating “I’d rather masturbate than fuck with Vik Vaughn”, and rather than be insulted by such a statement, Vaughn demands “Let me watch”, hinting at his true intentions.
The traditional, old-school drum sample-heavy production style on Vaudeville Villain is really just a formality, a different yet fitting approach for Dumille who manages to adapt and ride the beats without really noticeably changing his style. And unlike other DOOM-related efforts, the obscure television sound bites (which at times in his other releases intrude on particular tracks and spoil the flow) are thankfully kept to a minimum. With the beats firmly taking a back seat, often it’s not the production that catches the ear but rather Viktor Vaughn’s rapping, either through an interesting rhyme or his appealing, appropriately paced style of delivery. There are times when the beats do become more prominent though, most notably in the mesmerisingly glitchy “Raedawn” and the infectious combination of horns, strings and drums in “Saliva”, handled by renowned producer RJD2.
In Vaudeville Villain are some of the most relentless, humorous and lasting examples of rhyming and vocal delivery in hip hop’s history, understandable given that Dumille was just about at the peak of his powers – 2004 would see the release of acclaimed releases MM…Food (as MF DOOM) and Madvillainy (a collaboration with revered underground producer Madlib), and in 2005 he would also work with Gorillaz on their release Demon Daysand Danger Mouse in The Mouse and the Mask. Despite the laidback production being refreshingly appropriate in a MF DOOM release, the way the album progresses is a little uneven at times, with a few tracks seeming unnecessary (particularly the “Open Mic Night” numbers), but it’s still a damn entertaining album even considering its somewhat abstract nature, and is perfectly accessible. At the very least you’ll be walking away from Vaudeville Villain with several handfuls of memorable rhymes, some of which may require rabid clicking of the replay button.