“Every hero needs a villain”. Batman and the Joker. Superman and Lex Luthor. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. And, on this album, Czarface – The fictitious embodiment of Wu-Tang Clan’s Inspectah Deck, and Boston’s 7L and Esoteric – and MF Doom, underground hip-hop’s most well-known, metal mask-wearing, self-styled supervillain.
The eponymous meeting of Czarface and the metal-faced Doom occurs four tracks in on “Close Talker“, in a skit which sounds like a 90s early-morning cartoon, and one which epitomises the over-the-top, faux-high stakes shenanigans of the album’s premise.
Czarface: What do you say we do a little team up?
MF Doom: What?
Czarface: Ya know, a “team up”… like Spidey and the Torch; Hawk and Animal; 7L and umm, um…
It’s a Marvel-style hip-hop team-up, complete with lengthy origin stories (Inspectah Deck first featured on 7L & Esoteric’s track “Speaking Real Words” back in 1999 before their first full-length album landed in 2013), prior history and build-up (Doom and Czarface initially faced-off on 2015’s “Ka-Bang!” from Czarface’s second album, Every Hero Needs a Villain), and an album cover akin to the front page of an 80s Fantastic Four comic book.
Each member of the super-group brings their distinct powers to the fray, making for a dense, technical and mostly enthralling effort spread over sixteen tracks.
7L’s boom-bap beats form the backbone of the majority of the album, providing marching, stomping, old-school sounds which are especially prominent on tracks like “Astral Travelling” and “Nautical Depth”.
There’s lots going on here production-wise, with bouncy basslines reminiscent of A Tribe Called Quest on “Stun Gun”, a whining guitar on “Don’t Spoil It”, and playful skits interspersed throughout which make listening to the album feel like an evening spent reading comic books with Adult Swim left on in the background.
We catch snippets of a trailer for a Czarface movie (“This adventure will keep you on the edge of your seat!”) and a surreal cartoon-style snippet where a mysterious character tries to flog some young superheroes new masks (“Hey, you look like you could you could use two masks man, what if one falls off!?”), whilst songs shift from one to the next with crackling TV static, as if someone is absentmindedly flicking between channels.
There’s plenty to warrant numerous re-listens, and enough to make up for some of the album’s weaker moments, such as an underwhelming Vinnie Paz feature, and a misplaced, anti-climactic final track.
Whilst the beats provide the perfect backdrop for Inspectah Deck and Esoteric’s aggressive East Coast styles, they are far removed from the eccentric, unpredictable loops and samples previously favoured in Doom’s past partnerships with Madlib on Madvillainy, or Dangermouse on The Mouse and the Mask.
At times, this can lead to verses from Doom that sound restrained or bored – such as on “Meddle with Metal” – or to his absence entirely; he barely appears on “Astral Travelling” or “Don’t Spoil It”, retreating instead to provide adlibs and evil laughter.
The album works best when Doom is let off his reins, letting loose the flexible rhymes and off-kilter wordplay he is most known for on songs such as “Forever People”, and “Phantoms”, a creeping, bass-heavy beat which wouldn’t sound out of place on Run the Jewels’ RTJ3.
However, it is Esoteric who steals the show here, channelling his inner-Killer Mike with an alliteration-heavy final verse (“F**k a phantom, I’m fed up with phony fantasies / Fake fugazi fantasies fam, we f**k with family”).
The haunting production and solid verses on “Captain Brunch” show what happens when the group are at their best, but it is undermined by the strange decision to almost entirely re-use the lyrics from “Captain Crunch” earlier in the album. “Crunch” briefly samples fellow Wu-tang alumnus Ghostface Killah’s contribution to Czarface’s previous album, and raises the question of what Czarface Meets Ghostface could be like. Maybe we’ll see on the next album…
Nevertheless, Czarface Meets Metalface provides a satisfying alternative to hip-hop’s current offerings of trap and mumble rappers, and a necessary break from the highly politicised musical landscape headed by the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Jay-Z and Joey Badass.
What better way to distract oneself from the latest ramblings of Donald Trump, or the depressing goings-on in current global politics, than a proudly old-school album from four seasoned hip-hop artists pretending to be comic book characters and throwing out references to Jeremy Renner (“silent-weapon Avenger”), Merlin and Hannibal Lecter? It’s unapologetic, fairly silly and quite a lot of fun.
Purchase Czarface And MF Doom’s Czarface Meets Metalface on iTunes here, and stream it below.
Words by Elliot Tawney