For years the pathos of Brit-rap as a pale and slightly off reflection of the Real Thing was summed up in the name Derek B. He was pretty good, actually. But in the gladiatorial realpolitik of rap more than anywhere, “pretty good” don’t cut it. All through the ’90s, at regular intervals, you’d hear the cry go up: “British hip-hop finally comes good with ____.” But to be honest, none of the names that’ve filled the blank ever got further than Derek-level decency. Which is why you never hear your Mike Skinners and Dizzee Rascals name-dropping Gunshot or Ruthless Rap Assassins or the Brotherhood; no, it’s always Nas or Raekwon or Ludacris they cite. And that’s not inverted patriotism, not really—that’s just genius responding to genius.
In recent years, the most convincing case for British hip-hop (not counting grime, which is really a totally different animal: nowt to do with UKrap, it evolved out of dancehall via rave’s shouty MC’ing) has been mounted by London’s Big Dada, the sister label to rap-less trip-hop imprint Ninja Tune. The British backpacker scene is even more insufferable and self-stifled-by-cool than its American undie-hop counterpart. But as heard on their excellent 2002 comp Extra Yard, Big Dada’s acts (Ty, Gamma, Roots Manuva) injected some real and long-overdue rudeness into the U.K. sound—albeit mostly production-wise, as U.K. MCs on the whole tend to remain low-key. All that changes with Infinite Livez, who dominates his own records in a way few non-grime Brit MCs do.
The first thing that distinguishes Livez is his in-yer-face voice (or voices—he has several comic alter egos, some of them quite Monty Python–esque). He saunters through the tracks of his debut album, Bush Meat, with a sort of loutish elegance. One of his trademarks is extending the last syllable of a line into a great bleary smear midway between yawn and yowl, insolently slackjawed and somehow saucy. This man is larger than life; his imagination’s equally outsize. Standout track “The Adventures of the Lactating Man” puts a whole new twist on “flow.” After squirting his girlfriend in the eye when she’s fondling his nipples, Livez visits his doctor. But when the nurse tries to take a specimen (expertly—”she was twiddling my nipple like my radio dial”) the man-milk just won’t stop gushing. The population has to stay “afloat in boats” as the entire U.K. gets inundated “with fresh milk well pasteurized” (past your eyes, geddit?). Livez’s languid lasciviousness as he raps about girls “making me feel all frisky” by “chewing on my tit like it’s made of Wrigley,” and his delirious moans of “bit more . . . oooooooh . . . little bit more” as the “white gravy” gloops out introduce a Princely polymorphous perversity I’ve never heard in hip-hop before, apart from maybe OutKast. (Who might be a reference point, or even influence, although former art student Livez’s favorite André is actually Breton).
As with a rapping Rabelais, or Bataille with a beat, Livez’s mind’s eye is magnetized by that ripe zone where the appetites (erotic, gastronomic) intersect with animalism and scatology. “White Wee Wee” is a moist miasma of sex-as-food and lovers-as-beasts metaphors (“ejaculate honey for you,” “my snout in your wet wound”) while the skit-ish interlude “Brown Nosh” features Bouncement Queen demanding a rim job as her fee for appearing on the album. “Worcestershire Sauce” redefines flava in terms of U.K. potato chips (or, to put it proper, crisps, which come in exotic flavors like “ready salted,” “cheese & onion,” et al.). And “Drilla Ape” tells the story of a man cheating on his partner with a primate.
The music, mostly produced by people from Livez’s crew, Shadowless, totally fits the lyrics. It’s a bit like “Atomic Dog” if produced by Rembrandt Pussy Horse–era Butthole Surfers: bulging and Bootsy-elasticated, hyper-gloss cartoony (Livez did a comic book called Globulicious and used to design Game Boy graphics), wriggly with funkadelic detail. The Afro-future funk of “Claati Bros” (lyrically a droll if slightly opaque spoof on Brit Art, painters daubing canvases with elephant doo-doo, etc.) might be Groove of the Year; like “White Wee Wee,” it’s slinky yet ruff. And some of the best bits are the interludes—for instance, the Animal Collective–weird romp of “The Forest Spirit Sings the Bush Meat Song.”
Only toward the end does Livez’s shtick gets a little fatigued—”Pononee Girl,” from its punany pun on down, belabors a not hugely amusing sex-as-horse-riding metaphor. But then Bush Meat rallies with the brilliant “Last Nite.” Over an apprehensive xylo-bass riff, Livez unfurls a panic-attack panorama of bad stuff, the mindscreen of a man unable to stop contemplating all the sadness and terrible goings-on in the world: stillborn babies, abused wives, teenagers scarred by a face full of shrapnel, murders in forest clearings, a Massai warrior losing all of his cattle. The chorus, nicked from Indeep’s hymn to life-saving deejays, goes, “Last night I nearly took my life.”
Honestly, I’d be surprised if a better rap album is released this year, from anywhere.