Pitchfork rating: 9.1
My rating: 8.5
(MF) DOOM, King Geedorah, Viktor Vaughn, a few more monikers based on collaborations, if there was an “Underground Hip-Hop” category on Jeopardy!, the $200 answer would probably pertain to a Daniel Dumile-related project. Even though DOOM’s output has slowed considerably in recent years, (he released four projects between 2003 and 2004, not counting instrumental albums) today’s rap landscape wouldn’t be the same without him. He hasn’t caused the Billboard hip-hop charts to be filled with other mask-wearing MCs, but albums like Madvillainy were pivotal in changing countless listeners’ perceptions about rap, including my own.
For Vaudeville Villain, Dumile took on the moniker “Viktor Vaughn,” an approximation of villainous inspiration Doctor Victor Von Doom’s name. Months earlier, he released, to-date, his lone solo album as King Geedorah. It’s rather exhilarating how much mileage Dumile gets out of variants on Viktor, including “V,” “Vik” and “Vikmeister.” Though Dumile could’ve just pasted “MF DOOM” on the title of every release since Operation: Doomsday, I appreciate the devotion he puts into something as simple as a name change. Vaudeville Villain isn’t a quality album because Dumile goes by a different name; it’s a quality album because Dumile doesn’t allow for afterthoughts in his creative process.
Of all the Dumile projects I’ve heard, Vaudeville Villain is the most urgent-sounding and intense. While albums like Madvillainy, Operation: Doomsday, and Mm.. Food have relaxed vibes that could soundtrack a mellow summer’s day hanging out on a porch, Vaudeville Villain has more than a few tracks that unnerve in ways I wasn’t expecting. This includes tales of crime, like the coke errand gone awry in “Lactose and Lecithin,” set “somewhere out in cop killing Queens” and the treatise on stick-up procedures in “A Modern Day Mugging.” It helps that both these tracks are produced by Heat Sensor, who also contributes cinematic production throughout the album, like the eerie, crackling beat on “Raedawn” and the sci-fi-infused boom-bap on “Never Dead.” While Heat Sensor has the consistently best beats on the album, it’s Max Bill whose throbbing drums and bass, and somber synths and horns on “Popsnot” provide a wooziness only amplified by Dumile’s codeine reference.
Then there’s the tension released through Dumile’s flair for potent one-liners boasting his superiority/ On the volatile title track, he declares “We don’t give a flyin’ fuck who ain’t not feelin’ him.” He offers physical threats (“Either M.Y.O.B or B.Y.O. stretcher”) and cold dismissals of his competition (“I wouldn’t take their tape if they gave it free” and “Racist against rappers; they all look the same to me”). His focused, unshowy flow means Dumile can land potentially clunky similes such as “V brings the beef like a trucker to Fuddrucker” and “He only came to save the game like a memory card.”
Vaudeville Villain takes a few turns, most notably with “Can I Watch?” King Honey’s sultry production underscores a fling between a teenage Vaughn and Apani B. (in the role of “Nikki.”) The love is lost and then some, with Apani offering an assessment harsher than any Dumile lays on other rappers: “I’d rather masturbate than fuck with Vik Vaughn.” Later youth narrative, “Never Dead,” is an exercise in absurdity escalation as a delinquent Vaughn and M. Sayid (in the role of “Curtis Strifer”) go from guns to dark arts over, of all things, a stolen Donkey Kong cartridge. Part of the fun of the album is how a single verse or line can turn a track on its head.
Based on Dumile’s inventory of pop culture references, you might estimate the majority of Vaudeville Villian to have been written between the late 70s and early 80s. To wit, he namedrops Mr. T, Welcome Back, Kotter’s Horshack, Rob Reiner, Saturday Night Live stars Dan Aykroyd and Joe Piscopo, and throws in a Honeymooners reference towards the end for good measure. There are slightly more contemporary references (like Deepak Chopra and Good Will Hunting) sprinkled in, but it’s amusing how many of Dumile’s references could’ve been mined from a few hours of watching Nick at Nite or TV Land. On “The Drop,” Dumile references Cardassians, and it took some light research for me to realize he was talking about Star Trek: The Next Generation characters and not Kim, Khloe and kompany.
On two occasions, Dumile throws in “Open Mic” tracks, seemingly live freestyle exercises showcasing other MCs, who cover subjects from racial unity (Ben Grymm) to love for marijuana (Hydro). While “Open Mic Nite, Pt. 1” is a bit spotty due to less than smooth transitions from rapper to rapper, “Pt. 2” is an album highlight, thanks to a great closing verse from Dumile and one by Creature, who contributes a top-notch threat: “I’ll make your heart chaperone your bones to the funeral home.”
Having not heard Vaudeville Villain before, I was thrilled by how it wasn’t only a great album, but also one that showed new sides of Dumile and his creative process. It’s a mean and greatly successful album. Or, I should say: it’s vicious and victorious.