Back After These Messages: The Mouse and the Mask at ten years old
This all started with a tweet…
THE MOUSE AND THE MASK doesn't have nearly as much critical adoration as I feel it should. Like, we should all be talking about it all day
— Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse) August 5, 2015
Which led to these two tweets…
@aNateScott willing to collab if that's what it takes to get this vital piece out into the world
— Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse) August 5, 2015
Which led to these two tweets…
— Bryce Taylor Rudow (@brycetrudow) August 5, 2015
You’re welcome internet. – Bryce
In 2005, hot-name producer Danger Mouse teamed with British-born rapper MF DOOM to create The Mouse and the Mask, an album’s worth of tracks organized around Adult Swim’s lineup of surreal, stoner-friendly cartoon programming. Sampling dialogue liberally from such shows as Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law and Aqua Teen Hunger Force, the album stands today as a salute to life’s simplest pleasures: weed, women, and weird-ass TV.
Charles Bramesco: After everything has been said and done, no matter how great it is (and it is great, let’s nobody get it twisted), The Mouse and the Mask is promotional material. Adult Swim may not have produced the album themselves through their Williams Street Records imprint, instead leaving the release to punk outfit Epitaph. Still, the spirit of corporate synergy runs strong throughout every song, and yet none of it has the soullessly mercenary feeling that tie-in records usually have. It’s a happy sort of cross-promotion, where the listener gets the impression that DOOM sincerely enjoys the TV shows he’s name-checking left and right. It might be the specificity of his allusions (“since when the Way-Outs include Zorak / back when he used to rub his thorax in Borax”), but it’s not difficult to imagine Daniel Dumile up at three in the morning, stoned out of his mind, cackling at reruns of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. MF Grimm accused DOOM of being a company shill on his diss track “Book of Daniel” the year after The Mouse and the Mask dropped, and though we can see where he’s coming from, the man’s way off-base. DOOM’s love for the cleverly stupid, stupidly clever programming blocks on Adult Swim shines through the tangled politics of product placement. DOOM’s just rapping about shit he likes, as he’s always done, and will continue to do until the end of days. Nobody likes commercials breaking up their cartoons, but the corporate aspect ties the record together as a unified whole. What say you, Nate? Has this ever bothered you?
Nate Scott (of USA Today’s For the Win)#: Not a once. If anything, it’s angered me, because the whole album-as-corporate-shill argument has allowed a lot of Serious Rap Fans to dismiss the whole thing. If that makes me a sell-out, so be it, but it’s not like DOOM is rapping about Northrup Grumman here. He’s rapping about stoner cartoons he likes. I can get down with that.
But I have a weird and defensive relationship with this album. Yes, it’s promotional material. Yes, it’s stupid and weird at times, and yes, it’s got bunch of comedy skits, which I usually detest in rap albums. But it’s also got DOOM at the absolute peak of his powers, rapping with an ease and dexterity that’s jaw-dropping, packing joke on top of joke until you’re overwhelmed listening to it, hushing your giggles so you can catch the next line. He reminds me on this album of the old stories about Larry Bird, whose ‘86 Celtics team was so good that he started playing some games left-handed just to keep himself interested. On The Mouse and the Mask, Doom isn’t content to just rhyme the last word of consecutive lines. He’ll rhyme the last two words, then the last three, then the last four, until at times he’s rhyming entire consecutive lines syllable for syllable. It doesn’t always make immediate sense (“Pelican, with some very soft mangoes / A closet full of skeletons and terry cloth Kangols”) but the joy in wordplay is so evident and his imagination running so wild, what starts as a promotional album about cartoons turns into a glorious, gorgeous psychedelic journey.
Or have I listened to this album by myself too many times?
CB: There’s no such thing as listening to this album by yourself too many times! I think you’re right-on about the hip-hop gatekeepers wrongfully turning this one away from rap game Valhalla because of its businesslike leanings, but moreso than that, the album’s reputation in posterity has been even more wrongfully tarnished by the album’s deliberately slight attitude. Like Madvillainy, this record’s closest spiritual predecessor, The Mouse and the Mask isn’t really “about” anything. Of course both of these albums engage with themes — duality, obscured identities, maybe a little bit of lost innocence — but for the most part, they’re showcases of DOOM’s towering talent for their own sake. DOOM’s not here to rap about the harsh realities of life on the street, but rather its mellow mundanities. He touches on the unhot-button moments from his lived background, focusing on afternoons spent eating cereal and chasing skirt rather than gunned-down friends or crackhead zombies. As you pointed out, a lot of it amounts to little more than nonsense, but my god, what virtuous nonsense it is. On DOOM’s mic, the English language exists less as a form of communicating information than a tactile, textured collection of sounds and noises that can be rearranged in an infinite number of different combinations. DOOM’s off-balance placement of emphasis on the line “word to el muerto cucaracha exoskeleton” alone typifies his insatiably imaginative approach, breaking the words down from discrete units into a tumbling roll of consonants and vowels. A little research reveals he’s shouting out his deceased brother occasionally known as “Deadroach”, but to the casual listener, that illuminates nothing. It just feels good in your earholes. Are most of the pleasures you take in the album immediate like this, Nate? Or is there more to it than there consciously not being more to it?
NS: Starting with Madvillainy, my joy in listening to DOOM has of course been about the wordplay, but I’ve also loved the universes he creates and then, in song, inhabits totally. In Madvillainy, he leaned on comic books and movie tropes of the ’40s and ’50s to provide him for a context with which to make sense of the world around him. In The Mouse and the Mask, that’s replaced with late-night cartoons, but the effect is the same: a guy using fantasy to process his reality. (It’s the Oscar Wao-ification of the universe, if you will.)
Take the line I mentioned earlier from “Crosshairs,” when he raps “Pelican, with some very soft mangoes / A closet full of skeletons and terry cloth Kangols.” At first you seize on the wordplay, his connecting internal rhyme of “pelican” and “skeletons,” but when you hear it again, you see the duality being set up. At first, we get a dream rendered in bright colors of a bird and a tropical fruit, which happens to be a double entendre for a girl with big breasts. The second half of the couplet is more dark and stark: Hidden in the closet, there are those Kangol sweat suits, yes, but also the skeletons that haunt him. Read literally, DOOM is lying in bed with his girl in his apartment. As you said, nothing is really happening. It’s not about anything. But here I am writing multiple paragraphs about it, about the stark contrast he’s created between his real life (a stoner watching cartoons in a dark apartment) and the bright, vivid world of the cartoons he loves so well.
My least favorite moment on the whole album is actually when Talib Kweli shows up on “Old School” and completely misunderstands what the entire fucking album is about. (Sorry, Talib fans.) In it, he waxes nostalgic about growing up watching cartoons, gets off a cheap reality TV joke, then complains about the modern rap game, lamenting that some people think that to make it in the rap game you have to “have a criminal past.”
It’s just literal (not to mention whiny), and smashes the universe that DOOM has spent the entire album creating. Luckily, DOOM is quickly back to the rescue, as he listens to Talib Kweli’s pandering, earnest verse, lets the hook come through, then hits us with “And we’ll be right back after these messages / Fellas grab your nutsacks, chicks squeeze your breastesses.” Just like that, all is well. Am I being unfair to Kweli? And am I overselling what DOOM is doing on this album?
CB: For our many differences, it warms my heart that we’re united in our steadfast knowledge that Talib Kweli’s verse is the weak link on the album. I’d even go so far as to say that Talib Kweli’s verse is the “Old School” equivalent of Common’s verse on “Get Em High”: a heavyweight talent jumping on an non-essential but deeply pleasurable track to prove that he does not know how to have fun, like the philosophy undergrad who tries to talk about Heidegger at house parties.
But that does get me thinking about the judiciously-chosen features on the album, all three of them. God only knows what strip club Kweli stumbled out of before clambering into the booth and dropping his brick, but Ghostface and Cee-Lo bring their respective A-games on “The Mask” and “Benzie Box”, respectively. Ghost and DOOM are a match made in heaven, and not just for their shared penchant for alternate identities. (Though isn’t that just the most felicitous touch of all, two men known for obscuring themselves behind assumed personae learning that they can obscure themselves even further by hiding behind one another?) DOOM and Ghost establish a beautiful symbiosis, wherein the former’s irrepressible lighthearted streak brings out the fun in the latter’s mad-dog growls. The year after he finished working with DOOM and Danger Mouse, Ghost would drop Fishscale, endlessly arguable as his finest solo effort to date. That album’s palpable appetite — for power, status, pleasure, more more more — first takes shape in Ghost’s “The Mask” verse, where he crows, “It’s like I ate a thousand Icees and frozen Pepsis / even Aquaman’s pops can’t water-check me / disrespect me indirectly / I seen his feet and they both lefty.” Ghost evinces an overall demeanor of ferocity, and yet his lyrical content is as feather-light as anything DOOM’s been dishing.
In early 2005, confirmed terrible person Cee-Lo Green was also on the precipice of a major achievement. He and Danger Mouse had met while touring in late 2004, hit it off, and “Benzie Box” ended up as one of the fruitful collaborations that would gift the world St. Elsewhere under the Gnarls Barkley moniker in 2006. Cee-Lo had proven himself an eminently capable MC during his stint with Goodie Mob, but Danger Mouse has the good sense to isolate Cee-Lo’s distinctive tones for sung vocals instead. Their almost-chemical combination spawned the lush and transcendently poppy Gnarls Barkley project, not to mention the first number-one hit for either musician with “Crazy”. It’s thrilling to see the seedlings of brilliance on both of the features, like learning your favorite stand-up was on the writing staff for your favorite sitcom while he was first getting his start. Nate, I’d pose this question to you: Scattered features notwithstanding, how do DOOM and Danger Mouse split creative ownership of this album? Where’s DOOM’s influence end and Mouse’s begin? Or do you see the record more as peaceful cohabitation?
NS: One of the critiques I’ve heard re: this album in comparison to its predecessor is that on Madvillainy Madlib seemed to understand the world DOOM was trying to create and then joined him there, or else melded with him serendipitously with his jazzy, free-form beats that were the perfect backdrops to the comic-book noir world DOOM inhabited on the album. It was a perfect match of a producer’s sound and rapper’s vision and, whatever, I have no argument against that. Madvillainy is perfect. But the argument against The Mouse and the Mask went, made by a rap fan friend on a drive to Houston in college, that Danger Mouse’s production was cool and all, but it didn’t really add anything.
I sort of swing the other way. I love Danger Mouse’s production on this album, and think the 70s lounge vibe he finds on a lot of these tracks is a perfect fit to the stoner-cartoon world that DOOM is rapping about. The album does lack a certain aural cohesion, I guess, if I’m being snobby, but I don’t mind it — DOOM’s wordplay and flow tie the whole thing together, which is why I can live with and love an album that has a beat like “Old School” a few songs away from “Crosshairs,” which sounds like it’s from not only a different producer, but a different planet.
All this isn’t to mention the cohesion that Danger Mouse finds with the album’s main influence. An underrated part of everything Danger Mouse does on this album is tie in the sonic world of Aqua Teen Hunger Force and the rest of the Adult Swim gang. Roadrunner “beep beeps!” pop up in the middle of beats, and on “Space Ho’s,” Danger Mouse creates a beat that actually sounds like the musical intro to an old late night talk show, complete with the static fuzz of the channel changing at the beginning of the song.
The knock against Danger Mouse is the same as the one against DOOM on this album, I think: The whole thing is just, well, silly. These are two dudes having fun. But silliness can also be beautiful, and at times, genius. Danger Mouse understood what this album was, and the care that he shows in creating this silliness should be admired. Don’t do things halfway, kids. Even stupidity.
But let’s wrap this up. It’s been a decade since this album came out. How will this album be remembered? Is it a low-key masterpiece? Or is it a goofy thing that stoners will fuzzily recall in snippets, pausing from a Dorito to find themselves suddenly chuckling at the line: “Dag! Don’t mean to sound crunchy / Hit a honey from the back and crumpled up her scrunchie.”
CB: I can’t claim to have my finger on the pulse when it comes to public perception of this record, which is all the evidence I need that it deserves much higher stature than it currently enjoys. With Danger Mouse linked to names as world-straddlingly huge as Adele, the Black Keys, U2, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I predict/hope/pray that a new generation of curious neophytes will do a little bit of exploratory googling and find their way to this cult classic. A low-key masterpiece is precisely what this is, a landmark success of the hip-hop genre that refrains from positing itself as such. In the past, I’ve mentioned on this very site that the hip-hop records generally accepted as “classics” tend to arrive with a sense of great occasion and circumstance, actively positioning themselves as The Next Big Thing with outsized lyrical ambitions and big-name features. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either; we wouldn’t have so many great rappers if they weren’t all in contest with one another for the title of Greatest Alive. But The Mouse and the Mask knows exactly what it is, recognizes what it wants to do, and then does it extremely well. It’s got niche appeal, and those already initiated into the colorfully off-kilter world of Adult Swim will get more out of this than those who aren’t. But the album still stands alone on its own merits, a loosely connected and easygoing jumble of pop-culture references, excellently bad jokes (“at 13, his first queen wore hot knock knees / had to tell her pops, ‘yo, stop cockblockin’, B!’”) and fantastical world-building. The closest thing that we’ve gotten to The Mouse and the Mask in the interim decade since its release is probably Captain Murphy’s Duality mixtape, another Adult Swim-affiliated exercise, one that trades the cartoon sound-effects for vintage low-budget horror flicks. God willing, we won’t have to wait another ten-or-so years for whatever comes next, but all I know is that I look forward to any rap album this content with just fuckin’ chillin’, and chillin’ hard.
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