Hands around my testicles, middle finger risen
Nobody cares about grime anymore. The British pirate-radio rap offshoot was endlessly flogged as that next shit three or four years ago. Music writers and the people who read them (or, um, us) were discovering this seething hive of activity in London’s housing projects like it was a colony of ants thriving under a rotted-out log or something. Teenagers, apparently, were recording beats on their PlayStations and climbing up on council-estate towers to position their pirate-radio broadcast-antennae. But most of that scene’s leading lights barely made it out of their neighborhoods. Even if grime did yield a few big hits in England, those hits couldn’t translate to anything resembling stateside fame; grime’s penetration of the American rap scene never got beyond Pitbull spitting over Lethal B’s “Pow (Forward)” on some mixtape. And eventually we all just stopped hearing about this grime thing. On one hand, this is just part of the constant sped-up turnover in music-press interest; this decade has already seen the press embrace and abandon garage-rock, electroclash, dance-punk, freak-folk, Houston rap, hyphy, and any number of other micro-explosions I can’t even remember right now; the same thing is almost certainly going to happen to the current blog-house boom. But this isn’t (just) a case of music-press fickleness. If Simon Reynolds is to be believed, London’s pirate stations haven’t really been fucking with grime for a while now; they’ve moved on to funky house, whatever that is. The lingering effects of grime seem to be limited to the margins. Kano, a truly talented MC and potential star whose great debut album Home Sweet Home inexplicably never found American release, is a playable character in the new Def Jam Icon fighting-rapper game, for some reason, but that’s about it. This sort of thing happens all the time. Maybe back in 2003, grime hit a sort of collective nerve, and maybe its minor-key chaos and knife-edge violence just don’t mean the same thing four years later. But if grime has come and gone, that makes it a lot harder to explain Maths and English, the devastatingly great Dizzee Rascal album that leaked late last week. Maybe Dizzee is just one of those artists who’s built to transcend whatever scene birthed him.
Back when grime was still that next shit, Dizzee was its enthusiastic poster-boy. He released his first album, Boy in Da Corner at the age of 18, and it found itself near-unanimous critical love. Dizzee famously won England’s prestigious-I-guess Mercury Music Prize, and he was supposed to be the guy who would blow this thing up huge. I liked Boy in Da Corner, but I never really fell for Dizzee until second album Showtime, where he slowed down both his jittery beats and his hyena rasp. A lot of people thought Showtime was Dizzee’s capitulation to an American rap audience, but as an American rap guy, I thought he projected a whole lot more assurance and ferocity than he had before. I don’t know where Dizzee’s been over the past three years, but it’s an enormous and unexpected joy to hear that he’s continued to develop. On Maths and English, he’s just possessed, riding huge and off-kilter beats with sharp virtuosity and bending his voice around corners like it’s the easiest thing in the world. He hasn’t lost his angry-young-man confusion, but he sounds more charged and purposeful than ever. And the album manages both to be stylistically all over the place and sonically cohesive, a tough thing to pull off. It’s more of a straight rap album than a grime album, but it’s impossible to imagine an American rapper making this record. Dizzee’s producers swipe musical signifiers from all sorts of apocalyptically paranoid British electronic musics: harsh and distorted bass-rumbles from dubstep, evil synth-chimes from jungle, echoed-out drum-pings from Tricky. But they reorganize those puzzle-pieces into straight-up rap contexts. “Where Da Gs” is an ice-cold track, laying harpsichord flutters and sandworm synth-bass over sparse heartbeat drums. UGK show up for guest-spots, and the track is almost the exact sonic opposite of the lush, organic country-rap they usually make, but they still sound totally at home; they can find the track’s pocket because the track has a pocket. (Matt Sonzala has reported that this is the first of three existing collaborations between Dizzee and Bun B; I can’t wait to hear the others.) “Flex” is a hell of a club-track, at once hectic and metronomic, and even though Dizzee’s just spouting strip-club boilerplate, it’s great to hear him ably navigate the drums and synths and horns and whistles that all fly in from nowhere. “Da Feelin'” is a totally unexpected burst of lush, summery drum-and-bass, layering bubbly bass and smooth-jazz pianos over drums that skitter all over the place. “Temptation” samples the Arctic Monkeys, bringing their percussive guitars to their logical conclusion by turning them into parts of the rhythm track. Musically, Maths and English is both totally British and totally rap, and I’m not sure I could say the same thing of even Showtime.
The album also finds Dizzee tangling with all sorts of internal chaos but still ending up hopeful. The album’s opener, “World Outside,” is a calm before the storm and a promise of things that never quite arrive. Over whispery, pretty windchime synths, Dizzee mumbles about how he’s discovered the world that exists outside his projects and how he wants to show it to the kids who haven’t seen it yet. But a track later, he’s laying into a former friend (probably onetime mentor Wiley) on “Pussyold (Oldskool).” Musically and lyrically, the first half of the album is violent and turbulent as fuck, Dizzee repurposing different forms of 80s rap (the Lyn Collins “Think” break and “It Takes Two” whoops on “Pussyole,” crunchy King of Rock guitar-squeals on “Sirens”) and maniacally spitting all over them. He only finds something vaguely resembling the peace and happiness he promised around track seven, when he starts talking about dance-clubs and about watching girls in the summertime, things that he presumably enjoyed a long time before he found lower-tier fame. On “Hardback (Industry),” he offers career-advice to aspiring rappers and makes the music industry sound like a lawless snakepit not too different from the mob as depicted on The Sopranos. On “Wanna Be,” the only mar on the album, Lily Allen shows up to sneer at fake gangsters over tinny music-hall polka. (Seriously, Lily Allen makes fun of fake gangsters. You can’t make this stuff up.) But even amidst all the tumultuous noise, Dizzee takes rare moments to look up and imagine a happy place, never offering any indication that he’s there yet. Maths and English is a thoughtful and varied piece of work, and it bangs like a motherfucker. With this and the “International Players Anthem” video emerging within a few days of each other, it’s been a minute since I’ve been as excited about music as I am right now.