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.)
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.
But Dizzee's thrills are, first and foremost, sonic, from the chorused yelps to the pizzicato string samples that zip through his tracks. Three and a half minutes into "Fix Up, Look Sharp," Dizzee warns, "This could get hectic," and the beat drops out midword, leaving a gaping silence against which the final click of the "c" sounds out like a trigger, or a diamond tapping glass. Unintentional? Maybe. It hardly matters; the moment is so fraught with pure aural pleasure that it rivals both the most detail-attentive productions of "experimental" dance music and the most exquisite serendipitous moments in pure pop.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Even as a storyteller, Dizzee spits in a tone of voice that often trumps the tales themselves. Rappers are generally judged by their flow, but Dizzee doesn't so much flow as bubble, pouring forth blobs of throaty magma. His interjections, bursts of London slang like "Get me?" aren't filler, they're punctuation marks, animal cries, gasps of uncontainable emotion. He barks, hawks phlegm, carves his syllables as though he were chomping on apples. His voice cracks, quavers and wobbles between registers with a pubescent agony that no Autotuner could ever fix. And why should it? His tone offers heroism embodied in sound -- tragic, wise, hamstrung and determined.
Given all these angles, it's perhaps inevitable that Dizzee would receive the hype he has. He certainly deserves the attention. There are damned few artists out there with such personality, talent and an almost mythic credibility, and whose bootstrapping rise from obscurity to fame has happened so quickly and across so many cultural divides. The mistake, like that made by a recent Rolling Stone profile, is to be trapped by his backstory -- the stabbing, the kindly music teacher who took Dizzee under his wing -- and to worry too much about where to file him.
"I ain't garage, so get used to it," he scolds on "Vexed," the B-side to "I Luv U," and it's sound advice. Forget what you know. Understanding Dizzee requires new descriptors and new categories. It's not his past that's important, you realize when you see him on stage, his small, wiry frame shrouded in ridiculously baggy jeans, his mouth contorting in impossible ways. It's his presence, a presence channeled in rapid-fire rhymes and swollen syllables that sound like the cadences of an undiscovered tongue. Dizzee's music chronicles a face-off between content and form in which neither contender is left standing; only Dizzee remains at the end, surveying the battlefield and raising his flag over uncertain turf, and it's here that even the buzz of the critics dies away.
"Being a celebrity don't mean shit to me," swears Dizzee on "Fix Up, Look Sharp." But he wrote that lyric more than a year ago. Now he has little choice in the matter. (He may rap, "Fuck the glitz and glamour," but a month ago he was being chauffeured to Miami strip clubs in a Humvee.) How will the cryptic realist handle his fame? In the chronicles of this unlikely epic hero, that's the next test.