The Downfall of Ibliys: A Ghetto Opera is the long-overdue debut full-length from Manhattan’s Mad Flows Grimm, a.k.a. MF Grimm, a.k.a. Jet Jaguar, a.k.a. Build N’ Destroy, a.k.a. Grimm Reaper (from his now-mythical days alongside KMD), a.k.a., at least to his mother, Percy Carey. Old Percy’s list of alibis reads like a rap sheet, which is not too far off. As they say in the hip-hop world, Grimm’s keepin’ it real. The past nine years have been more about roadblocks than about solidifying his name in hip-hop. He was shot ten times on one occassion in 1994 (and pronounced dead at the scene), which left him a paraplegic and temporarily blind and deaf; he lost many of his friends to the streets; and he was incarcerated in a Staten Island prison, where he remains to this day. Since his debut on Kurious’s “A Constipated Monkey” in 1993 (the same year that he lost to Supernatural in the semifinal round of the World Supremacy Battle), MF Grimm has made a name for himself by working with artists such as Kool G Rap, Freddie Foxxx and, of course, MF Doom. Founding Day By Day Entertainment and appearing on many singles, Grimm has become, even without an LP to call his own, an elder statesman of sorts in hip-hop.
And this LP, in a thematic, loosely metaphorical way, is his story. In the Koran, the angel Ibliys is expelled from paradise after he refuses to obey Allah and bow to Adam, the implication that Ibliys felt he was greater than man. Like Ibliys, Grimm, who insipidly tells the story in “Time and Space” over a beat that is held together by a dancing piano, is a fallen angel. From behind bars, MF Grimm’s acclaimed simple and straightforward delivery remains intact as he comments, minus melodrama, on prison, the streets and depression. But put away your glockenspiels, friends: This fallen angel’s new course is one of probity. On “Teach the Babies” Grimm warns youths about selling drugs and urges them to stay in school.
But in the end the record lacks energy, and ends up taking on some of the characteristics of prison itself — the directness in his delivery sounding instead drab, the honesty and simplicity of his lyrics instead resonating rudimentary. I may be mistaken, and a whole world could be uncovered behind lyrics such as “You got one life to live/ Pure love is all that you give.” But, even if I am wrong, it remains difficult to get through to what could have been lyrically because of the repetitive and monotonous, and sometimes abysmal delivery (especially when Grimm plays the melancholy crooner, as in “Freedom” and “Yes You Are (It’s Only a Movie)”).
This “Ghetto Opera” depicts the perils of the city, and this tension between good and evil are never more evident on this LP than on the song “Life and Death,” which is the best track on the record. The beat, revisited from KMD’s “Black Bastards,” is bass heavy and upbeat, and really the only one on the record that Grimm seems to have mastered. Unfortunately, the head-bobbing energy and captivating love story between Grimm and his mistresses — Life, Death, Sleep and Coma — is not repeated throughout the record. Even with such cursory metaphors, the track is enjoyable, and the story becomes more germane and intriguing when considering Grimm’s background. Context is key here.
Another high point comes with the “Voices” tracks, which were previously released on limited-edition vinyl. “Voices Part 0,” in which Grimm rhymes over the funk organ of another Doom production, and “Voices Part 1,” which is MF Doom’s verse over the same beat, is already a favorite. If you weren’t able to catch it on vinyl, including it on the full length makes it more attractive. Both emcees come through with some of the best lyrics on the record and tear Doom’s superhero soundtrack to pieces.
The LP is a joint project between Grimm’s Day By Day Entertainment and MF Doom’s Metal Face Records. The Masked One produces or co-produces eleven of the album’s seventeen tracks and rhymes on two of them. His light and soft jazzy beats are a welcome intonation behind Grimm’s rhyme patterns. Though the record boasts a host of noteworthy guests in production, including Doom, Count Bass-D, J-Zone, DJ Cheapshot, Dr. Butcher, DJ Eli, dminor, Cas and Rob A, the only emcees featured on vocals are Monster Island Czar Megalon, Count Bass-D and Metal Face Doom. With all these extra heads, especially noteworthy ones such as these, I was hoping for a record more sonically diverse and inventive.
In the end, Grimm seems to regard himself less an entertainer than an informer of the street life, and in his attempt to turn the brutal into poetry, but it is more his wisdom rather than his lyrical prowess or intensity that shines. But, honesty is not necessarily a precursor to genius. Just as in “I.B.’s,” (shorthand for Incarceration Blues), where Grimm speaks of a woman on the other side of the metal bars, his street (or prison) narratives, though raw, lack the poetic quality that would make this record a success. With such prosaic delivery, some of his lessons get lost as platitudes rather than wisdom.
Missteps such as the spoken word elegy of “To All My Comrades,” rhyming through the alphabet on “Teach the Babies” (done infinitely better by Gift of Gab) and the dismal singing voice all contribute to occluding this record’s true potential and the ability to appreciate it. Maybe I will soon find a mood in which The Downfall of Ibliys can garner my appreciation, allowing me to see though any missteps or botched flows to the unpolished depiction and raw street narratives of Mad Flows Grimm.