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New American Songbook

The Mask Of Doom

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Masks are more than a flashy stage gimmick for the emcee and producer MF DOOM. The iron mask, first worn by his namesake, the comic-book villain Doctor Doom, serves as the central conceit for what is now a decades-long exploration of hip hop’s more formal, structuralist elements.

DOOM raps primarily in two bar couplets, heavily coded with slang, and layers and layers of abstraction and association, as in the dizzying verses of the song “Figaro”:

The line, "off sides like how Worf rides with Starfleet," describes DOOM’s self-appointed position in hip hop as the misunderstood, benevolent villain who has enough distance from the so-called mainstream to properly assess the state of hip hop. The mask is a physical distancing object that DOOM uses to fully immerse the listener in his character.

DOOM wasn’t the first to don a mask, literally or rhetorically, nor is he the only character artist—Ghostface Killah, the RZA, the groups Shabbazz Palaces and the Roots are others who use hip hop not as a confessional form, but a narrative one, telling stories that often resemble novels more than singles.