On sheer quality, it’s more than enough to say that “Fancy Clown” is a stand-out sample flip on a record full of insanely good Madlib flips. The songwriting is as clever as MF DOOM fans have learned to expect, too, of course. Beyond his standard high level of lyricism in individual bars, the setup is a lot of fun— Viktor Vaughn writing a furious kiss-off to a lover who cheated on him with one of DOOM’s other characters.
But the verse traffics in a crippled understanding of fidelity. Forgive me for trying to extract a serious point from DOOM’s brilliant, light-hearted comic book world, but Viktor Vaughn is so pissed his girl stepped out on him with Metal Face that he tried to hurt her by boasting of his own infidelities? With her friend, their maid, and her mother? This misapprehension of fidelity as being optional or even unreasonable for men, but mandatory for the women they deem special from the rotating cast of partners they brag about, undermines many of hiphop’s best breakup anthems (Ghostface’s “Back Like That” for example).
But “Fancy Clown” and “Back Like That” and “Song Cry” and a dozen others that pretend separate, gendered standards of fidelity are valid still work in some essential way. By baking that regressive inequality into such magnetic breakup songs, male rappers are guarding their own privilege and validating other men’s refusal to let go of theirs, even as they lower their guard and emote. It’s troubling but it definitely doesn’t stop me listening to and enjoying these cuts. Maybe that’s partly because of the psychology of romantic collapse, where we often need to feel righteous and better-than, and where it’s easiest to succumb to the temptation to wound people we care(d) about. But it’s probably mostly because these songs are so damn effective on a musical, emotional level. That brings us back to the samples.* “Song Cry” has that chorus-of-weeping-angels backdrop taken from Bobby Glenn’s “Sounds Like A Love Song.” “Back Like That” has Neyo in top form, and if you listened to rap when Fishscale came out there’s a 93% chance you walked around humming or singing that hook for months in 2006. And “Fancy Clown” makes brilliant use of ZZ Hill’s “That Ain’t The Way You Make Love,” a spurned-lover anthem that can’t decide if it’s out for reconciliation or well-meaning slut-shaming:
A beatsmiths’ ear for the right emotion freeze-dried into even a single note from someone else’s record, and the fusion of a track to a vocal, is the source of all hiphop’s power. It’s what makes songs affecting. When it’s done well, it makes space for emcees to smuggle ideas into verses, to bury them a bit so that they can germinate with listeners. When it’s done really well, it can almost save painfully on-the-nose rappers from themselves, as with Macklemore’s equality anthem “Same Love.” But that fusion is just a tool. Hiphop’s revolutionary roots are no guarantor of it’s future concerns. It pays to be especially vigilant in moments that seem like progress, like Jigga making a smash hit out of a song that simultaneously highlights and defends a concept of manliness that is increasingly outmoded. Because those moments are progress, and should be celebrated, but never with blindness.
*WhoSampled.com is an incredible resource for this stuff, though if you’ve googled around to pin down a sample flip before you probably already know that.