If East London teen rapper Dizzee Rascal doesn't break big in the U.S., he certainly won't be the first Brit sensation and rock-crit cause celebre to fail to cross over. In fact, Dizzee nÇ Dylan Mills would only be following a family tradition. Dizzee's most obvious scene forebears are Tricky, a "trip-hop" would-be Prince whose gritty, dystopian Maxinquaye trailed only PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love in critics' polls back in '95 but came up short on Soundscan, and Mike Skinner, aka the Streets, whose literary tour of Brit flat-rat culture, Original Pirate Material, topped many U.S. critics' lists in '02 without moving many copies.
But if American hip-hop fans predictably take a pass on Dizzee's Boy in da Corner which won Britain's equivalent of the Grammy Album of the Year, the Mercury Prize, last year and was finally released in the U.S. this month they'll be missing out on one of the most exciting pop-music voices to emerge in years.
The hip-hop label can be a little misleading. Dizzee, who was only 17 when the bulk of the material on Boy in da Corner was recorded, is a rapper, to be sure, and one who borrows images and language from his U.S. counterparts (choice battle rhyme: "Chuckin' MCs like stones/Bad boy forever like Sean 'Puffy' Combs"). Where Skinner was saddled with the label "the English Eminem," Dizzee's rugged confidence and swagger might peg him as a Brit Jay-Z though the warm, regretful reportage that undercuts his braggadocio is more Notorious B.I.G.
But Dizzee still separates himself from American MCs, perhaps to the detriment of his commercial prospects. Much like Skinner, his content is distinctly English in a way that earlier Brit MCs weren't, lacing his rhymes with local slang "bobbies on the beat" and "flushing MCs down the loo" and lashing out playfully at Tony Blair and the queen ("Don't talk to me about roaming, cos/Queen Elizabeth don't know me, so/How can she control me when/I live street and she lives neat?"). And his often manic rhymes are delivered in a thick brogue that might make his flow impenetrable to American ears on first listen. If Dizzee's name sounds like that of a cartoon character, the effect is compounded by the fact that he sounds sort of like one of Donald Duck's nephews on a British holiday.
And then there's the music: Alternately called "U.K. garage" and "grime" in a musical culture that engages in semantic coup d'Çtats at warp-speed intervals, Dizzee is at the forefront of a music that, while borrowing from Western Hemisphere sources, feels like a genre all its own. Think of it as a British mix of hip-hop, dancehall reggae, and techno but with clanging, minimalist beats and slowed to a chopped-and-screwed stupor.
What might be most impressive about Boy in da Corner is the way Dizzee's introspection and vulnerability inform his audacious battle rhymes and feverishly comic tales of underclass life in "the Bow." The album opens with "Sittin' Here," which, in a genre built on action (if we're talking about this as a hip-hop record), is perhaps unnervingly inert. In this not-a-boy/not-yet-a-man meditation on a childhood left behind and the precarious state of his 17-year-old life, Dizzee introduces himself with the following shell-shocked lines: "I'm just sittin' here/I ain't sayin' much/I just think/And my eyes don't move left or right/They just blink."
"Sittin' Here" is followed later by "Brand New Day," where Dizzee looks around and wonders if the future can hold any change. "When we ain't kids no more will it still be about what it is right now?" he asks repeatedly, each iteration launching the song into a litany of present-day conditions "pregnant girls who think they love/useless mans with no plans." And the album ends with "Do It," where he actually contemplates suicide.
But if those songs make Boy in da Corner sound like too much of a downer, they only add heft to the rowdy tracks that surround them party bangers like "Fix Up, Look Sharp," where Dizzee beats Jay-Z ("99 Problems") to Billy Squier's "Big Beat" sample; unhinged boasts like "Stop Dat" (where threats involving guns, fists, and butterfly knives are spiked with references to Fred Flintstone and Tom Jones); and, most of all, battle-of-the-sexes snapshots like "I Luv U."
"I Luv U," Dizzee's breakthrough U.K. single, might be Boy in da Corner's finest moment. With a stuttering automaton title hook reverberating around give-and-take verses (featuring an uncredited female sparring partner) over a percussive mix of bounce beats and industrial clatter, "I Luv U" is a definitive baby-mama-drama song. It may be less delicate than "Ms. Jackson" and less fun than "MyBabyDaddy," but it's as fully realized and as artistically crucial as either and with an underlying paranoia that veers into "Billie Jean" territory.
"Being a celebrity don't mean shit to me," Dizzee Rascal proclaims on "Fix Up, Look Sharp." Rejecting the nouveau riche glossiness of mainstream American rap may well be a self-fulfilling prophecy. But if Jay-Z really is abdicating the throne, this is one kid who deserves a shot at the crown.
The Country Teasers
(In the Red)
Were it not for the Oblivians, the Country Teasers' Mid-South fan base would probably be an audience of one. But thanks to a mid-'90s European tour that paired the Scottish band with Memphis' favorite garage-rock trio, the lads gained quite a reputation locally. Full Moon Empty Sportsbag the Country Teasers' fifth album on their fourth record label in eight years is even more mealymouthed than its predecessors.
Much of the music on these 14 tracks is indecipherable, thanks to frontman B.R. Wallers' recording techniques, which, in his own words, are fueled by "hatred and contempt for all aspects of the [music] industry." Snippets of songs do emerge from the maelstrom of untuned guitars, bass, and organ such as the self-consciously tongue-in-cheek couplet "There are no lyrics for this part of the song/Make some up yourself so you can sing along" on "Deaths" but, for the most part, Full Moon Empty Sportsbag plays like a warped Billy Childish album at 78 rpm.
Wallers does his best to be shocking with song titles like "Please Stop Fucking Each Other," which, surprisingly, turns out to be a country jig, and "Man V Cock," a dirge-driven drinking song.
He redeems himself on "Boycott the Studio" and "Sandy," which draw on the Fall's Mark E. Smith for creative and sonic inspiration. Cynical, primitive, and occasionally hilarious, Full Moon Empty Sportsbag ultimately proves to be a complex nihilistic treat if, that is, you can brave all the barriers blocking its core.
The Country Teasers perform Sunday, January 25th, at the Hi-Tone CafÇ, with the Unicorns.