Dizzee Miss Lizzee

The Boy in Da Corner comes out swinging

It is in the nature of buzz that it obscures the sounds behind it, so it's no surprise that one of the year's most astonishing -- and astonishingly hyped -- albums has become one of the hardest to hear clearly.

In the year or so since the idiosyncratic British rapper Dizzee Rascal's single "I Luv U" appeared on London's pirate-radio airwaves, the buzz has steadily grown, first among bloggers and online critics, then among the UK dance music press, and finally in stateside music magazines, lifestyle press and even The New York Times. Dizzee's emergence out of one of the most underground sectors of London's dance music scene was so unexpected -- and, to American ears, confounding -- that hype and hearsay tended to supplant criticism. While early assessments addressed the particulars of Dizzee's sound -- a frenetic, bleep-ridden rhythmic underpinning over which he spits frantic rhymes in a crackling, adolescent squawk -- the coverage quickly turned to breathless gossipmongering.

He's 19 and comes from the ghetto! He makes his beats on a PlayStation and produced half the album in music class! He wore a Golden State Warriors jersey in his first video! (This last point, at least, secured underdog sympathies among more than a few Bay Area listeners.)

Britain has fallen, and now Dizzee sets his sights on America.
Britain has fallen, and now Dizzee sets his sights on America.

By the time Dizzee's debut album, Boy in Da Corner, hit our shelves in February, it had already earned the UK's vaunted Mercury Prize (landing Dizzee in the company of past winners such as Roni Size, Ms. Dynamite and, um, PJ Harvey), its creator had been the victim of a much-publicized stabbing in the Greek clubbers' resort of Ayia Napa, and its patrons' droning had become enough to give even the most seasoned beekeeper a headache.

With the factoids came critical tussling. Is Dizzee a genius or a charlatan? Is he a black version of the Streets or a British version of Jay-Z? Is his music hip-hop or UK garage or something stranger still: "grime" (if you're a disciple of the critics' critic and bloggers' blogger Simon Reynolds), "grimy" (if you're Rolling Stone) or "eskibeat" (if you're a follower of Dizzee's collaborator Wiley, who named the style after his own single "Eskimo," in a nod to the music's brittle, icy sound)?

But none of this really matters.

All the speculating has served only to obscure the point that Boy in Da Corner is one of the most startling, remarkable and possibly even lovable albums to come along all year. (That you could use a word like "lovable" with a record this harsh only tends to deepen your affection for it.) A fusion of strangely sophisticated, lo-fi programming and guardedly confessional rapping -- delivered in a voice that's unlike that of any rapper on any continent -- the album is a thrilling call to arms from a one-man army battling over sonic terrain you didn't even know existed.

Leaving aside the obvious sociological divide between the MC and most of his American listeners, Dizzee's world is an unfamiliar one, so full of squelches and jackhammer rhythms that it sounds like roadwork on Spur 527. You will, however, recognize certain elements. Yes, that's an enormous sample of Billy Squier's "The Big Beat," and yes, Dizzee's lyrics, like many of his predecessors' material, obsess about violence and petty crime. But the context and approach are radically new. Surrounded by whoops that might be teenagers imitating car alarms, Squier's snare drums sound more like slamming car doors than references, ironic or not, to the canons of hard rock or old-school hip-hop.

As a ghetto troubadour, Dizzee spends more time talking about his anxieties than he does about joy rides or beat-downs. Uncharacteristically for the self-aggrandizing world of hip-hop, he seldom bigs himself up, and even when he does, his boasts are tinged with paranoia, as when he half-gloats, half-broods, "Fellas want to stop me, they'll probably come together / It's probable they'll stop me, probably never." Often, he's content simply to talk about stasis. On the album's opening track, the uneasy "Sittin' Here," Dizzee scopes out the scene with an almost autistic sensibility: "I'm just sittin' here / I ain't sayin' much, I just gaze / I'm looking into space while my CD plays." Such tunes are like a ghetto version of Seinfeld, the sitcom in which nothing happens, and that's precisely the point. Insofar as Boy addresses realism -- the role Public Enemy's Chuck D ascribed to hip-hop when he called it the CNN of the ghetto -- it documents the ennui, instability and lowered expectations of youth in London's public housing projects.

For a teenager, Dizzee is surprisingly grown up: He sounds mournful, not thuggish, when he explains that in his neighborhood, "eight-millimeters settle debates." Still, the delirious cry that goes up as he finishes that thought underscores the ambivalence at the heart of the album, where ecstasy and enervation are but two sides of the same coin. "Brand New Day" twines desperation around aspiration, alternating despondent verses about the ghetto's dead ends with a determined chorus that celebrates a "brand-new day / New opportunities, what can I say." Instead of indulging in stock hip-hop delusions of fame and fortune, Dizzee offers what might be a Horatio Alger tale, not just making cash but going so far as to "put some away for an off-key day." And even "Jezebel," which easily could have turned into a misogynistic tirade against loose women, becomes a strangely empathetic portrait of a girl whose sorry fate was written from the beginning.

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