Dizzee Rascal

Maths + English

(XL; 2007)

By Peter Hepburn | 23 July 2007

Either because being an English rapper defaults you as an underdog or because of his natural charisma, I've always had a soft spot for Dizzee Rascal. He isn't always charming, sure, but he's ambitious: by 2004 he had two albums, a few stellar singles, and a number of worldwide tours--all before turning 20. Of course, at least stateside, Rascal was always going to be a niche product: a rapper for those adventurous enough to take on grime buzz and LDN lingo. Maths + English, for all the US hip hop touches, is not likely to convert those turned off by his earlier work. It's a shame, too, because not only is this Rascal's best record yet, but in a year plagued by a dearth of good hip hop I'd say it's the best rap album of 2007 thus far.

The main problem with both Boy in da Corner (2003) and Showtime (2004) was inconsistency. Both those records had phenomenal tracks ("I Luv You," "Stand up Tall," and "Jezebel"), but there were bloated sections on both that slid by without registering. Maths + English, Rascal's shortest record, feels sharpened and refined. I mean, there's a weak track or two ("Excuse me Please" is a tad too self-righteous to be taken seriously), but the record has a logic and flow to it that his previous work hasn't.

Gone, for the most part, are the alien bleeping and grinding metallic weirdness that characterized the previous two records. Rascal's made a big step toward American hip-hop on Maths + English and he ends up sounding great with a cleaner enunciation and more traditional beats. Both the fierce "Pussy'ole" and the viciously dystopian "Sirens" let Rascal loose over thick, menacing beats and he delivers on both with aplomb. The latter, riding over what sounds like a lost RZA gem, has Rascal absolutely tearing shit apart, especially as keeps switching up his flow in the middle verse (the song is also helped along by one of the craziest fucking videos in recent memory). He follows this one-two punch by bringing in UGK for the entirely convincing "Where's Da G's," selling his own suffering a lot better than he previously has with "Paranoid," and then sneering his way through "Suk My Dick." The latter is a hard sell, but his delivery is so out-sized, and the yankee doodle sample in the beat so appropriate, that he manages to make it work (especially check out the final verse, where he almost one-ups M.I.A. on the goofy love-of-language tip with a quick "bingo / I got the lingo / come through your window / star like Ringo / beef chaka / I'm neuvo.") And, hell, that's only the first half of the record.

The back half of the record has a few potential stumbling blocks. Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys delivers a solid hook on "Temptation," though it feels poorly mixed into the track; the lilting Lily Allen, by contrast, dominates "Wanna Be," somewhat overshadowing Rascal's punchy verses. Elsewhere, "Flex" and "Da Feelin'" should be appreciated as the silly summer anthems they aspire to be; fortunately "Bubbles" sees Rascal locking back in over a thick bass line and enough hand-claps and tangential synths to make Timbaland's ears perk up. Only on the closing track, the hard-as-nails "U Can't Tell Me Nuffin'," does grime rear its head again, though the shear spite of the track is more startling than the production.

There's little doubt, though, that this is Rascal's best work to date. Boy in da Corner is nothing to scoff at, both for the string of great songs and the introduction it provided to American listeners to the world of grime. Showtime was a remarkable second effort, especially given the short time-frame and Rascal's potential novelty. Maths + English, though, should be the record that cements Rascal's reputation as a genuinely important rapper. This one sees him expanding outward in any number of directions, and succeeding in nearly all of them. No small feat, especially for a young British rapper.