Czarface has never been shy, apologetic, or cryptic about their mission as a hip-hop group: saving the genre they love most. At least, that’s what Inspectah Deck told HipHopDX in 2013. Along with his compatriots 7L and Esoteric, Deck’s unwavering nostalgia for the good-old-days of this kind of music has led them to become Czarface, a collective superhero avatar. His mission is one that seems to be found among an increasing number of old school rap enthusiasts and hip-hop heads that bemoan the current state of the culture they hold near and dear to their hearts. Whether or not most people agree with that sentiment, they can’t accuse Czarface of not trying: they’ve released three full-length albums in the last five years. While these projects have in no wise been groundbreaking, they have provided a steady diet of fun for listeners seeking for low-stakes fun hip-hop full of dusty samples, silly skits, and densely-packed rhymes. But as one of the skits on Czarface Meets Metal Face reminds us, every hero needs a villain. And wouldn’t you know it, they enlisted the talents of the most famous hip-hop villain of them all.
No one is more qualified than MF DOOM (the ‘MF’ is apparently back) to fill a collaborative role on a Czarface project. It’s been a while since this much output has been heard by the doctor, a man who was once the living embodiment of the synergy of hip-hop and comic book culture, but that’s understandable considering how the last decade of his life has treated him (he lived in London after being denied entrance into the U.S.A. and his teenage son passed away last year). Perhaps it is due to these factors that he has often sounded bored or lethargic on his guest appearances, even slurring his words at times. His work with artists like Ghostface, Flying Lotus, Earl Sweatshirt, Cannibal Ox, and even PRhyme signify a certain level of prolificacy, but it’s almost as if he was searching for someone or something to completely draw out his inner villain.
While Czarface does manage to coax out a significant amount of energy from DOOM, it doesn’t seem to be quite the group to fully engage him. There are tracks like “Nautical Depth,” which see a sprightly DOOM delivering lyrics that show flashes of his once razor-sharpness (“No friendly warfare, this ain’t wrestling/There’s nothing staged over here, you’re trippin’, mescaline”). Even tracks like “Captain Crunch” sound quintessentially DOOM-ish, maybe from his Danger Doom days. Unfortunately, the majority of the album doesn’t see him laying down top-tier stanzas. “Forever People” is clearly meant to be a skills showcase, but none of its verses are outstanding: DOOM is solid but not stupendous, Esoteric lays down more references than solid punchlines, and Inspectah Deck’s verse, while dynamic, feels too basic (“I stay woke like seven cups of coffee”). On “Don’t Spoil It,” Deck stuffs his bars with references to classic rap albums, but the track feels more like a gimmick than clever or original. And Esoteric often sounds like he is attempting a JAY-Z impersonation, though a passable one to be sure. Lines like “My interest, fly Benzes,” certainly don’t help.
The album’s highlight comes on the most modern on all of the tracks “Phantoms,” where DOOM begins with a competent verse, Esoteric shows up with a bundle of energy, and Deck spits as furiously as he can. The real star of the song, and maybe the entire album, however, is Open Mic Eagle, who effortlessly raps circles around his hosts.
But it’s hard to knock this album as sounding too much like a period piece because that is so clearly the intention. The Czarface fanbase is select and specific, and the emcees have always spoken directly to that audience. It’s clear that they value familiarity more than progression. If someone was looking for a hip-hop album that sounded like it could have been released 10-15 years ago, Czarface Meets Metal Face might fit the bill. However, if that same person was looking for a reminder of Inspectah Deck or MF DOOM’s greatness, he or she would be better off sticking with the classics.