Dizzee Rascal

Boy in Da Corner

(XL/Matador; 2003/2004)

By Amir Nezar | 26 January 2004

Before I embark upon this review, let's air one confession first: I am not qualified to review hip-hop/rap. I own perhaps six rap albums, and have only three times that on my computer. These include some of hip-hop's finest: Oukast, Jay-Z, and some Prefuse 73 - yet you should not trust a damn thing that I say.

Well, that's out of the way. So now I'll expound upon why my opinion might just be valid: even those who have not been too involved in the hip-hop scene can actually appreciate why it's good, and what exactly makes it good.

First: lyrics and flow. It doesn't take overwhelming intellect to understand what comprises good lyrics and flow. Does the flow follow a rhythmic pattern? Are pace changes tactfully integrated, and perhaps even some variation in rhyme schemes explored? Do the lyrics reek of empty self-petting and braggadocio, or do they have something to say(naturally some braggadocio can be expected, so long as flows don't consist exhaustively of it)? Outkast are actually interested in throw-downs with issues oft-circumvented by 95% of their incompetent peers, while Busta is occupied with issues of asses on fire, spilling off tables…whatever.

Second: hooks/inventiveness. Does that stuff (you know, the music) in the background actually provide some sort of meaningful support, or are we listening to amateur-on-the-mic night, backing sounds not required? Is it all plagiarized from the latest hit which plagiarized it from someone else, which plagiarized….you get it.

Third (like rock): is the album a collection of filler with some winning singles, or is it an actual artistic effort? Very simple.

Dizzee Rascal fulfills every single one of these criterion superbly, adding an extra spice: his gritty London accent, which is as far from the posh velvet candy of self-conscious clubs as the rich are from the experience of the poor that they often sympathize with, while proceeding to bumble on, bloated with patronizing misunderstandings.

What makes Rascal win you over so powerfully, despite his relentlessly bare, glass-under-your-feet desolation, his how honestly he's connected with the immediacy of his surroundings. Also impressive: he's 18. Yet he's more than mature enough to debate debilitating teen pregnancy cycles, the imminent difficulty of a directionless future (excepting, for himself, that he will be rapping "probably forever"), and ruinous reality that underlies the typically empty material aspirations of some of hip-hop's worst emcees.

Rascal's hooks are themselves unnerving manifestations of his bleak surroundings. The ethereal blips and bleeps that form the minimalist hook on "Sittin' Here," are as haunting as the lyrics that Rascal spits out with resigned frustration - lyrics about missing not the days when he was just young, but when he was a little kid. It puts into stark relief the intense level of despair on the ground-level, where being 18 isn't cause to fear older years, but to yearn for even earlier ones, when the innocence of childhood is the only insulating defense against an encroaching reality rife with brutality and disappointment.

But more importantly, the hooks and background music are far less their own independent entities that backgrounds upon which Rascal's lyrics are intended to take prominence--and the lyrics deserve to be at the fore. Not only does Rascal's flow shift seamlessly into different rhythms, it also happens to be extremely poetic, employing varying rhyme schemes that are complex and, further, tie entire verses to one another structurally while they connect thematically. Going from abab to aaba to aaab to aaca bbcb, Rascal's understanding of how the structural integrity of his flows is connecting to his rhyme schemes is thoroughly impressive. Check out the variations in "Cut 'Em Off," which, while being a brag-track, nonetheless moves with a different take: "And just remember this, I am you / So if you think you're real do what you gotta do / On a level you're just challenging yourself / So if you're feeling brave go ahead and burn yourself." Or on "Hold Ya Mouf," Rascal chops out chunks of lyrical excellence: "It don't make no sense to me why fellas don't wanna act sensibly / You better recheck your identity you better recheck you speak / You don't make no sense to me if I switch I won't act sensibly / I'll make you care intensively you'll be in a coma for a week."

That Rascal can make brag tracks sound so fresh is testament enough to his skill as an emcee. But on "Round We Go," when that lyrical skill combines with a storyline of an inevitable tangle of a love-failure, that he becomes truly phenomenal. Or on "Jezebel," where a promiscuous girl becomes an STD-ridden vessel of regret, Rascal's unforgiving flow matches the venomous lyrics - the cycle of VD's perpetuates itself via an unfortunate who's been taken advantage of and enjoyed it, only realizing she should have made better choices when she's contracted them and has two kids without a father.

Finally, Rascal's entire album is full of meaningful content. It is almost "all killer, no filler" (whereas that title from a certain pop-punk band's album could have only been ironic…). It is, ultimately proof of Rascal's intent to make a full statement out of his debut.

It does have weaknesses, which the almost overwhelming strength of the rest of the album might obscure. The first has to do with Rascal's content--not that it is empty at any point, but that it is in general of a hopeless nature. While he finds myriad roads to the conclusions of desolation and despair that so clearly mark his soul, the conclusions are all nearly the same. Rascal never veers from the dark course, and while he does it excellently, it is straining on occasion. Occasionally the abrasion of some of the more filthy, angry tracks, like "Stop Dat," become overbearing. Lastly, there are a couple tracks here that suffer from less rhythmic development than the others, like "Wot U On," which, while full of insight about the victory of money over love, nonetheless works with aaaa bbbb etc. rhyme schemes all the way through, often using the same words for its end-rhymes.

That said, this album is so full of character, angry energy, and skill that its missteps are made minute by the almost overpowering strength of its statement and atmosphere. It's a shame I hadn't listened to it until recently; it would have surely made it at least somewhere within the 20-30 range of my top 50. It's a sterling effort, and with only 18 years to his name now, Rascal already proves that he's got more than enough years left to make the UK garage rap classic that will flatten all others. Let's hope he doesn't make true on wishing he could "sleep forever" (in his stunning closer, "Do It"); the world is already waiting for his talent, almost already fully formed, to absolutely obliterate the rest of the rap/hip-hop scene. So am I.

And coming from a guy who's in love with rock, I don't know how much of a better recommendation you could get.