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Daniel Dumile wasn’t always the weirdest man in hiphop. The London-born, Long Island-raised MC first appeared as Zev Love X, one-third of the group KMD. After typical label troubles ended KMD’s deal with Elektra in 1994, tragedy struck: Dumile’s brother and fellow KMD member DJ Subroc was killed in a car accident. For a while, nothing more was heard from Dumile. Then, in the late ’90s, he re-emerged as MF Doom, released the progressive Operation: Doomsday, and—much like his muse, Marvel Comics’ Dr. Doom—declined to appear in public without a metal mask affixed to his face.

In his latest incarnation, Dumile’s most endearing feature is his implicit understanding that all rap music is an act. Doom knows that all rappers are competing in a big masquerade, even if most other MCs still waffle on the question of art vs. reality. When it suits them, they readily admit that the bust-a-cap-in-your-ass thing is just so much schtick. When it doesn’t suit them—say, when they’re trying to scare white people into buying their records—rappers insist that they’re “real.”

The genius of MF Doom is that he eliminates any conflict between masking and reality by putting his intentions out front. Operation: Doomsday’s “Hey!” for example, presents a world as dark and nasty and criminal as any in gangsta rap. But the accompanying track, built around a reworked Scooby-Doo sample, is as laughable as it is infectious. Coupled with plenty of goofy one-liners from Doom, the comic soundscape turns “Hey!,” into gangsta absurdism. “To all my brothers who is doing unsettling bids,” deadpans Doom. “You could have got away if it was not for them meddling kids.”

Dumile’s new Vaudeville Villain, released under the name Viktor Vaughn, adds another layer to the masquerade. According to press material, Vaughn is a typical b-boy from Latveria—the imaginary home of the original Dr. Doom—who has mastered “trans-Einsteinian physics, genetic engineering, and weapons technology.” But Vaughn is really just a more developed MF Doom: The album mixes influences from gangsta rap, science fiction, and Saturday-morning cartoons to create a surprisingly flexible aesthetic.

Vaughn can play the traditional MC: “True fiction, another sick story/I never met a chick who was too thick for me/Holy Moses, my ol’ Earth know me closest/On how I play the back and stay bent like scoliosis,” he boasts on “Saliva.” Or he can play the 50 Cent clone: “There’s no finer sound than when you let off a nine round,” he notes on “Never Dead.” But as on Operation: Doomsday, Dumile is content with boasting and making criminal pronouncements only if he can subvert it all with an element of the absurd.

Thus the gangsta

Viktor Vaughn, after being told to stay away from a woman “with those lyrics,” can demur, “Please, ain’t nobody fucking after her/I’m outta here as soon as I fix the flux capacitor.” Similarly, on “Lactose and Lecithin,” Vaughn presents a fairly ordinary crime scenario—that is, until his getaway is almost foiled by his plodding vehicle. “How you get this thing to hyperdrive?” he asks in frustration.

It would be easy for this habitual pairing of gangstaism and sci-fi to come off gimmicky, if not for one reason: Dumile is one of the most effortless MCs on the scene. Not effortless in terms of seamlessness, as are Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, and Jay-Z at their best. But effortless in his allusions, as well as in his definition of what can be said in rap song. To compare him to another sci-fi-obsessed MC, he’s like Kool Keith in Dr. Octagon mode—but with serious skills.

So aside from references to geek culture—”If I don’t study, I’m-a cheat off Peter Parker”—Vaughn serves up a plate of zingers snappy enough to please any battle rapper. “Don’t appear too drunk/And let a stare turn to a yeah, you punk,” he brags on “Open Mic Nite Pt. 2.” “Looking at my Seiko/It’s about to be Waco.” On “Saliva,” he rhymes, “A lotta crews like to act like a violent mob/They really need to just shut the fuck up like Silent Bob.”

Perhaps Dumile is a little too hung up on the words, though: The album’s beats were handled by random producers, with equally random success. All of the tracks aim for a dark, mid-’90s Boot Camp Clik- or RZA-style vibe. When the approach works, as on the King Honey-produced “A Dead Mouse,” the marriage is magic. When it doesn’t, as on Heat Sensor’s overwrought “Modern Day Mugging,” the music tends to distract from Vaughn’s vocals. But with the notable exception of “Let Me Watch,” which is marred by Apani B. Fly’s weak retorts to Vaughn’s sexual advances, the strong rhymes almost always make up for any weak production.

Beats aside, Dumile has effectively used Vaudeville Villain to demonstrate the difference between him and the rest of rapdom. J-Live is convinced of his ability to flip verses with ease. Jay-Z thinks of his life as an American saga. Talib Kweli is convinced that he has the key to free his people. All of this might be true—or none of it. What Dumile understands is that in a giant, already surreal world, keeping it real just doesn’t matter that much. CP