The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Friday, June 29, 2007
ADD IT UP AND SPELL IT OUT

As you may recall from “Imagine” three years ago, it was always Dizzee Rascal’s ambition to exceed and escape from the life and the neighbourhood in which he had to grow. The similar drifting winds of synthesisers which float Maths And English, his third album, into being, barely conceal the police sirens lurking underneath, and the sharpened knives which provide the rhythm track for “World Outside” (shades of Burial) signify that escape is never that easy nor that complete. Dizzee, breathing in his own awe, speaks of how the recording studio “took me to another world beyond the estate.” He is now apart, and yet “I can see you”; he has moved outside his hitherto confined and suffocating world and begun to breathe the oxygen of the actual world. The spell of coughing at track’s end brings the Associates’ “Q Quarters” directly to mind. And he remains uncertain about whether he has really broken free – “There’s gotta be somewhere other than this, man,” he says as though trying to convince himself.

But the story of Maths And English is to do with how Dizzee deals with this umbilical cord which he can’t quite shake off but which he knows will strangle him if he doesn’t cut it loose. “Back in my ‘I Luv U’ days,” he muses on “Pussyole (Old Skool),” which may or may not be an extended jibe at Wiley, “I was into pirate radio/I guess it was just a phase.” It is straight, unashamed 1988 hip hop which even has the audacity to use the venerable Lyn Collins “Think” sample, so dampened by extreme overuse that even Timmy Mallett used it, as though Dizzee were the first person to think of it, which is a pretty wondrous achievement in itself, as well as a few other old reliables. “Blood – don’t make me get old skool!” but suddenly he sounds freer than ever.

“Sirens” describes what happens when you choose not to be free; a fantastically grinding hardcore gulp of a backing track, processed metal guitars sounding like electrified cheesegraters, layers of Bomb School drums, horns and shouts, it starts with the tale of Dizzee’s home being raided by “twelve Limehouse police knockin’ at my door” after the “pussyole informed on me.” He protests his innocence, with a genuinely bewildered whimper on the last syllable of the line “They can’t do that to Dizzee Rascal!” But then he rewinds his story to give a fairly gruesome (and apparently true) account of mugging with extreme violence which he helped perpetrate while still a teenager, the horror only stopped by the appearance of an old schoolmate who recognises him and screams out his name in shock, just before the sirens come to collect him. He wonders whether the twelve Limehouse police don’t simply represent karma. He fearfully bleats: “I’ll break the law! I will never change!” A sad “uh-uh” stops him, and the track, in their tracks.

The same ambiguity of feeling towards the police springs up again later in “Excuse Me Please” in which a truly confused and angry Dizzee tries to make sense of why the world is so fucked up. He asks the listener, directly and not a little rhetorically, “If a policeman kills somebody, is that policeman still a murderer…or is he just another lost soul in our community?” The sober meditation, as with “Complete Control” and “Holidays In The Sun,” breaks down mid-song into angst-laden sobs of “Fuck it!…Is it me?…It is the fuck what it is?” and he then moves into active anger: “Who’s in charge of the stupid place? I wanna punch his stupid face!” before concluding “So that means there must be hope/Maybe room for revolution!” He repeats that last couplet, louder and harsher, so that the track’s real message isn’t lost – “Maths and English, stupid!”

There are numbers about his alleged credibility or authenticity. “Where’s Da G’s?” with visiting, genuine hardcore US rap guests Bun B and Pimp C in attendance, seems to direct its laser gun of ire towards rappers who talk the talk but can’t necessarily walk the walk; more than that, though, it could even be construed as a direct attack on passive cultural tourists – “You’re a fan of hip hop wanking!” Dizzee roars. “You love to sit and listen but we know that you don’t want no war…You’re no playa, you’re no pimp, I think that you should read a book! Find yourself a pretty girl and settle!” Several “critics” summed up in a nutshell there, I think. “How many real crooks on the TV? All I see are dead hooks on the TV!”

There is an extraordinary interlude about a third of a way through Maths And English where we get a series of numbers in which Dizzee seems to be looking backward and forward at the same time: the gloomy electronica of “Paranoid” with its “They wanna rinse me out” hook accompanied by suitable spin dryer sound effects, which leads into the hilarious “Suk My Dick” which sounds like latterday John Lydon gone for a grimy skank; observe the “I don’t give a shit who likes it!/I don’t give a shit who don’t!/Don’t tell me to change my fuckin’ attitude because I won’t!” section accompanied by a fast flute playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” He rhymes “punch you in the mush” with “Georgie Bush.” Then we reach the enjoyable mock-boastfulness of “Flex” with its exceptional music which manages to blend Britfunk, electro and purple Unique 3 rave with complete success – “Life’s too short to be cautious innit?” Is this still the past from which he is trying to escape or what he is enjoying now?

“Da Feelin’” makes no bones about his yearning for the now; kicking off with his gleeful howl of “Summertime! No time like summertime!” the track finds him collaborating with venerable drum ‘n’ bass heroes Shy FX and T Power, who promptly speed up an old Peabo Bryson tune to 278 rpm while bringing back the old junglist thrust, as horns light up the never bluer skies and Dizzee revels in the life he now leads (“It’s all good, man!”), even looking forward to returning to Ayia Napa, where once he had been stabbed. The track is euphoric, multidimensional, global in the best way, worthy of inclusion on The Blueprint, and see how those sirens mutate into whirring jetstreams, with those bells (he mentions Los Angeles) right at the end; glorious, a summer number one which we should already have had…

After that, though, Dizzee retreats into self-doubt, outward caution and some vituperation. “Bubbles” is a purposeful march of a groove where he realises the limitations of mindless ambition (“The penthouse is lovely, it’s a shame about the price”) but still ends up firing off missives at presumed rivals and chancers. “Hardback Industry” is positively post-Tricky in its starkly hammering beats, its Earth’s core of a deep, winding bass and atonal synth air raid warnings as Dizzee carefully gives instructions to would-be rappers wanting to make it big; beginning with the advice to pursue originality, and then “find a record label that’s not full of pricks,” he then moves on to warn against old friends who will suddenly become enemies, about journalists and interviewers (“Turn down the fuck shit”) and then the taxman, before concluding that if you want all this you will effectively have to cut yourself off from the world entirely (“Buy a house before you buy your car! Don’t tell no one where you are!…/That Porsche looks great/But do you really want it sitting on that council estate?”)…a “life” not that far from the methodology Ice-T laid out in “New Jack Hustler” nearly a generation ago.

Then come the guest collaborations. “Temptation” is a reworking of an Arctic Monkeys B-side over which Dizzee and producer Cage simply lay a military tap dance of a percussive paradiddle while Dizzee warns those he knows who haven’t yet escaped the ghetto and a premature end to their future (“Ain’t no kid, the world ain’t flat”), and, echoing Alex Turner’s distant voice, which, laden with echo, sounds remarkably like Lennon, Dizzee speaks of “my naughty friends – they’re not free,” and the life-preserving necessity to get out of his old way of living and follow the path towards the new.

“Wanna Be” is the controversial Bugsy Malone one, and deserves to be number one for 168 weeks; controversial in my book because Dizzee pulls off the seemingly impossible achievement of making Lily Allen sound funny and interesting. Everything which her own music so sorely lacks bounds to mischievous life here as she and Dizzee bitch with great entertainment at each other. One knows from Dizzee’s opening corner-of-mouth “Olroight, mate!” that this is going to be a classic, and it contains some of Dizzee’s best putdowns, culminating in the mighty triptych of “Beef ain’t nothin’ new to me you wally!/Why don’t you just kick back, be jolly?/Stay at home with a cup of tea, watch Corrie!” Here is the easy, natural, relaxed humour towards which the album has yearned to strive and reach. “What d’you know ‘bout being a hard man?” asks Lily, “Your mum buys your bling!” – though in the end both of them are again taking potshots at fakers.

But what is real and what is assumed? The closing “U Can’t Tell Me Nuffin’” is Tricky on very bad drugs indeed; wildly fluttering strings, wobbling synths, M25 bulldozers of percussion, finds Dizzee howling about having come through both “badness” and “madness” – and even rhyming “Kate Moss” with “give a toss” – dodging the self-question of “Rude boy, what’s all the hyping for?” with a roar of tormented self-belief. It’s as if he’s desperately thrashing against the barbed wire of the estate, still trying to escape, even though he hasn’t yet realised that he’s now standing on the other side. “Get me!” he roars with a wounded nobility of which Lydon would truly be proud. “I’m STILL FUCKING HERE!!” Still a prisoner or guiltily free? What happens when you’ve made it and still have to make that third album about what it’s like to be famous and successful? With nothing in the way of grime, but plenty in the way of purposeful innovation (few British hip hop albums have sounded so purposeful and intrinsically strong), Dizzee Rascal has come up with the best possible response; unlike nearly everyone else snagged on that “third album” slice of wire, I can’t wait to find out where he goes on his fourth.


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