If the rap world was ever lacking an ode to animation, that hole has officially been filled. DJ Danger Mouse (whose clever “Grey Album” drew national attention to the mash-up scene) and veteran underground rapper MF Doom have formed Danger Doom, and their “The Mouse and the Mask” is a brilliant concept album about cartoons. Both Danger’s production and Doom’s rhymes rely heavily on the influence of Saturday morning memories to produce a cleverly fun, yet narrowly focused record. Their thematic emphasis enhances the quality of the music but ultimately reduces its accessibility and longevity.
Immediately noticeable about “The Mouse and the Mask” is the heavy reliance on samples of characters and programs from Adult Swim, the popular late-night block on Cartoon Network. Both artists have named themselves after drawn characters: Danger Mouse (obviously) and Dr. Doom, nemesis of the Fantastic Four in the Marvel Universe. This makes sense, considering the common ground from which the collaboration sprang — both have a shared focus on pop culture, particularly that of their childhood.
Danger Doom speaks to this in “Old School,” featuring Talib Kweli. Over a horn-heavy soul sample, Doom and Kweli rap about the New York City house party of hip hop’s past, and more notably, their destitute days. Kweli reminisces about “makin’ up a miracle flow over a cereal bowl and a paused beat from my stereo,” while Doom champions a time when violence didn’t give a rapper credibility: “Since when do lyrical skills gotta do with killin’ a cat?” Throughout this record, his skilled rhyming answers his rhetorical question: since never.
Meanwhile, Danger Mouse chooses his samples with incredible vision; the beats are built completely on a combination of music contemporaneous to ’70s cartoons, samples of cartoon vocals, and a myriad of melodies and effects that either were lifted from or inspired by cartoon soundtracks.
The innovative “Sofa King” is an excellent example. Textured percussion carries a deceptively simple beat, over which Danger lays a brilliantly complicated bass line and an amazing combination of flutes, xylophones and synthesized beeps. Still, the DJ shrewdly understands the value of silence; he alternately layers and unwraps the tracks to create an incredibly animated result.
Yet the album’s single-minded devotion to source material can grow tiresome, which is best exemplified by an irritating dialogue from Adult Swim’s “The Brak Show” on the song “The Mask.” This reveals the flaw in Danger Doom’s concept. Cartoons are primarily characterized by humor and impermanence (due to their episodic nature). By immersing the album completely in its theme, Danger Doom has created a record that ultimately mirrors this characterization. Once the joke gets old, this record is far less interesting.
An artist can, unfortunately, be too clever. On “Mince Meat,” MF Doom is “spittin’ like a bionic sneeze to freeze vodka/ Just to clear the air like the Ionic Breeze Quadra.” He may be, as he claims, “slick enough to out-sly a fox,” but infomercial allusions quickly go from cute to annoying. “A.T.H.F.” is so oversaturated by Adult Swim’s influence that anyone who has not seen the show it honors, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, will be completely alienated by the lyrics.
“The Mouse and the Mask” is certainly entertaining; the album outclasses much of the mainstream rap it sometimes criticizes. But when the subject matter is so confined, Doom’s earlier rhetorical question is moot. Danger Doom may be technically better than many other producer-rapper teams, but that may not mean much if nobody cares about their material.
Danger Doom’s two talents consistently entertain as they reminisce, but the record as a whole is forgettable. In the opening seconds of “The Mouse and the Mask,” Brak announces, “Adult Swim presents Danger Doom,” and only in its best moments does the record shake the impression that it’s a mere soundtrack. The album is initially incredible but will soon leave listeners waiting for the next episode.