Roll Deep

In at the Deep End

(Relentless; 2005)

By Clayton Purdom | 30 October 2007

Maybe Dizzee Rascal wasn’t for you.

That’s okay; I don’t really like that Architecture in Helsinki record much and everyone else thinks that shit’s awesome. Grime’s meant to be abrasive (essentially, it’s the punk rock ethos attached to ragga sonics and hip-hop production), and if the lurching videogame pyrotechnics of the Rascal’s one-two long-playing powerhouse punch didn’t quite win you over, you can’t be blamed. You just didn’t buy the hype enough to listen through the difficult exterior, or maybe you did and you didn’t like what you found. It’s okay. We can disagree.

But if we disagree on Roll Deep Crew’s In at the Deep End, it’s gonna be for entirely different reasons. This album has been scientifically, geometrically produced to please the human ear, from the lilting smooth soul of “Flushing Away” to the slow jam slickness of “Good Girl.” This is a grime outfit shooting for pop super-stardom, but their tools aren’t intellect and innovation (like Dizzee’s were). In fact, this isn’t even a grime album. Instead, Roll Deep has mined the FM radio of the past twenty years and emerged with LL Cool J pop chops, Puffy production aesthetics, the synthline from “Walking on Sunshine,” and an album’s worth of lightning-quick linguistic head-spinning. At times, it’s very, very good.

Like on “The Avenue,” which is one of the most thrillingly new-sounding songs I’ve heard all year. Over gigantic 80s Huey Lewis synth blasts and cooing girl group backups, the Crew spits it ill about their broken hearts and methods of recovery (“We can start by having a chat / And a glass of brandy / then I start playing mind games”; next verse: “I’m on Heartache Avenue, waitin’ for my heart to break”; last verse: “No one lookin’ to settle down yet / I left my heart on my jacket downstairs.”) It’s interesting that this song sounds so novel, because it borrows its extended metaphor and youthful enthusiasm from the Sun Records school of songwriting. In the end, what’s so stunning about it isn’t its bizarre Russian Futurists sound but the boundless zeal and tangible joie de vivre that the Roll Deep Crew inject their ideas with.

They don’t hit another note of sustained pop brilliance this luminous, but I’ll be damned if “Bus Stop” doesn’t out-schmaltz the Neptunes at their own game (muffled electric guitars backing Steely Dan jazz over thick drum kicks). Likewise, “Shake A Leg” sounds like a gameshow themesong flipped (think Prince Paul at his goofy best). Both of these tracks would fall flat if it weren’t for the Crew’s verbal firepower, which features consistent humor, strong storytelling, a nuanced eye for detail and a delivery style violent enough to justify the admitted corny-ness of the beats. Essentially they’ve covered these beats in glitter and soft frilly things, but the rhymes dare you to talk shit.

The rest of the tracks fall into two categories. The first is menace: “Let It Out” is a passable place-filler after the fantastic first three tracks, utilizing plodding pianos and saving itself again with the thrilling, chilling juxtaposition delivered by the emcees. “Be Careful” fits this mold, too, but adds alternating handclaps and bass thumps to skittering, joyous effect; it’s an endearingly restrained moment of minimalist hip-pop in an album dominated by maximized thug excess. “When I’m ‘Ere,” “People Don’t Know,” and “Heat Up” are all unimpressively menacing tracks, bafflingly sequenced. And, inexplicably, they all involve accordions.

The second category is melancholy. “Show You” sets the template—the Crew finds its mournful footing early in the tracklist—but its not until “Remember the Days” grabs your ear with an old Q-Tip line and breaks your heart with a crooning 2pac chorus that you realize how good these guys are. Again, the beat is phenomenally silly, but the Crew rides the booming beat close to the rails, with sad humor like “Pepsi was God’s gift” popping abruptly out from the schmaltz-hop setting.

Of course, at its heart this is all very old school, and if you and I are going to disagree on anything, it’s whether or not In at the Deep End is relevant at all. You may not be able to deny “The Avenue,” but if you argued long enough, you could probably undermine it. This is a complete sellout, after all, a shameless bid for pop success that (with the exception of the awkward final track) shirks the entire scene that birthed it. There’s a lot to dislike here.

But an album this fun can’t—and, more importantly, shouldn’t—be dismissed. You can disagree with me on this album’s quality, but, shit, you’re missing out. Go listen to your Architecture in Helsinki record again; me, I’ma study this synthline.