Parallel Universe

Non-backpacker in da corner proves that London has 'hoods too—but no crunk quite yet

"Now honestly, could there really be peace?"

Dizzee Rascal smirks halfway through his new album. For this 20-year-old East London thug, life is a continuous struggle. He debuted last year with a dogpile of youthful aggression and inner-city despair; he sobbed, barked, cackled, and yelped about teen pregnancy and gang bloodshed over electronic squeaks and punishing Tourettic rhythms that made Timbaland sound like Meg White. The album didn't merely serve jarring notice that the U.K. has 'hoods, too. It's as if London was Rio in City of God—a moral void hovering on the edge of combustion, a place where guns flash without warning, snatching lives suddenly and senselessly.

Like gangsta rap's greatest stars, Dizzee writes about what it's like to have a soul in a soulless place—about losing touch with it in the hustle, dreaming of an out, and finding glints of humor and hope between the shadows. His real triumph, though, is the ingenious production style—wholly contemporary and wholly his own—that parallels these themes. On Boy in Da Corner, his raw howl and naked cries boxed their way through thickets and cluster bombs of cold digitalia, dynamic traps that echoed life's dead ends.

But Dizzee wants more, so Showtime bids for American success. His debut sold a respectable 45,000 here out of 250,000 worldwide, dominated Other Music's staff picks, and went No. 10 Pazz & Jop. But Dizzee—no backpacks in his closet—craves hits. XXL. 106 and Park. Hot 97. If he can open for his hero Jay-Z at Wembley, why can't he here? To that end, his debut's explosive clutter gives way to slower tempos, pared-down arrangements, and gaping hollows carved out between the bass and the beeps. After an album that kept time to boots banging around a dryer, Showtime makes some small concessions to listeners who prefer beats that take it easy on the epilepsy. The reflective, vaguely Eastern-scaled "Get By" even approximates melody.

Of course, keeping it real for Dizzee still means keeping it synthetic. At once infatuated with and frightened by technology, his beats sound like BattleBots throwdowns between Playstations and Nokias. "Respect Me" is his most menacing song ever, and not just for its lyrics about unloading clips into rivals, censors, and other unsympathetic listeners. Its central component is a bassline that spreads across the beat like black mold, the by-product of his bilious rant. The stick-up fantasy "Everywhere" juggles a Timbo-indebted party thump, leaving plenty of space for Dizzee's boastful speed-raps and syncopations. The title cut lays woozy synths over ricocheting snares and claps while Dizzee chews his way through a bootstraps autobio. The ecstatic single "Stand Up Tall" owes its sonics to Afrika Bambaataa's old-school electro and PC modem whirs. It's sharp and muscular, but as with most of this set, lacks a radio hook. Would Lil Jon please write this guy a crunk smash already?

It's a shame, because who wouldn't like to see Dizzee's name added to the list of outsiders and freaks who've stormed hip-hop's gates and made it better? Instead, Showtime secures him the No. 1 spot on the list of those who haven't: it's a brash, dazzling dispatch from a parallel universe. "You people are gonna respect me if it kills you," Dizzee seethes on "Respect Me," making it clear that, succeed or fail, this is an offensive launched on its own uncompromising terms. One listen to his desperate, confrontational bark—which burdens his vertiginous rhythms and sporadic playfulness with a staggering load of anxiety and rage—and the threat becomes redundant. Against these sparer backdrops, Dizzee's convulsions sound that much more violent, suggesting that turmoil isn't just bearing down on him from outside. "I've got so much to say in so little time in such a short space," he repeats on the closing "Fickle." There's a bit more cockiness here, but Dizzee's success hasn't placated him. As long as haters still hate, as long as there's still paper to chase, and as long as the 'hood still haunts him, he can't put his dukes down.

 
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