Why would you keep writing tunes about hardship and street battles with other rappers, when you’re living in Miami, playing to huge festival crowds and enjoying life?
Music review: Dizzee Rascal is back to his best, making fast, exhilarating rap again
Pop music loves a good journey. And no path is more well-worn than the journey from the rebel yells of the underground to leading a singalong in the heart of the pop establishment.
London born-rapper Dizzee Rascal, aka Dylan Mills, dazzled the music industry in 2003 when, aged just 18, he released his debut album Boy in da Corner. It was an hour of alternately angry, anxious and profound double-fast vocal gymnastics, delivered over his own beats; sparse science-fiction anthems from a bleak near-future.
Dizzee cemented his position as a revered prodigal outsider artist when the album went on to win the Mercury Prize that autumn. He then quickly made a follow-up album, Showtime, with the same kind of production and more evocative, dextrous tales of hardship and poverty, hard work and showmanship in the poorer parts of the British capital where he grew up.
In these early years, still just a teenager, as fame and money arrived at his door, Dizzee was for a while living a double life – appearing on TV, starting to tour overseas, winning awards, but still performing on underground pirate radio stations and getting into scraps with other rappers.
On one infamous occasion in the summer of 2003, he almost came to blows with hotly-tipped rival Crazy Titch (a loose cannon who was later jailed for murder), during a radio show on the roof of a 15-storey towerblock in Stratford, east London.
Nine years later, Dizzee was back in the same spot – give or take half-a-mile – except the pirate radio station wasn’t there anymore, nor was the towerblock and nor were the gritty stories and edgy beats. He was there to perform his number 1 mega-hit Bonkers at the £27m (Dh130m) London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, to an estimated global TV audience of 900 million people.
Dizzee wore a specially embroidered “E3” baseball jacket, honouring his local neighbourhood Bow, the east London postcode that will forever be most associated with grime: a genre he has frequently disavowed, even while he has also (justifiably) claimed to have played a critical role in inventing it.
His pop albums did what they were supposed to do: they made him rich and famous, they changed his lifestyle and documented those changes at the same time – why would you keep writing tunes about hardship and street battles with other rappers, when you’re living in Miami, playing to huge festival crowds and enjoying life? So he made light-hearted electro-pop with the master of the art, Calvin Harris; made the official 2010 England World Cup song, Shout, with James Corden; collaborated with Shakira, Shirley Bassey and Will.i.am; met Princes William and Harry; and rode around on mobility scooters with Robbie Williams on the video for Goin’ Crazy.
But to close observers, something wasn’t quite right throughout these pop years: whenever he was asked in interviews about the sound and the scene he left behind, he seemed to get defensive – likewise, when he was asked about his former friend and mentor Wiley, “the godfather of grime”, whom he fell out with on the cusp of his ascent to fame and has not spoken to since. He wasn’t interested in that, Dizzee would always say; that was the past, and an unhappy time – why were all these journalists and fans obsessed with it, and not the music he was making now?
Last year, with the likes of Skepta and Stormzy defying expectations and taking grime once again to the top of the British pop charts, and this time to a global audience, Dizzee confronted the past, playing a huge homecoming gig. It was a “return to the source”, performing his revered debut, Boy in da Corner in full, to 15,000 fans – once again, in a venue on the London Olympics site.
Interviewing him in the spring of 2016 ahead of the show, Dizzee seemed to feel, more than anything, consternation that people missed that side of his music – music he was proud of, but which had come from a dark place: “It’s mad how all this grime stuff has come around again, out of nowhere,” he said.
“I’ve been doing shows – and big shows, like festivals – for the last 13 years, and there was a period not too long ago, when I was playing the older material, and it wasn’t getting the response that the new stuff was getting.” But he took the hint, and on his sixth album, Raskit, he has returned, if not to the exact same sound of his first two albums – it has less of the alien futurism of Boy in da Corner – but to making fast, dense, exhilarating rap music again.
Across 16 tracks, we have a captivating mixture of wit, pride and reflection – and bitterness directed at some of his former sparring partners.
“Look at everybody eating off my recipe”, he spits on Dummy, and at several points Dizzee comes across as a kind of returning war hero, surveying the world he left behind.
On The Other Side, no-one is safe – “Why they talking like I never made bare [lots of] grime?” he asks of his critics. Referencing flavour of the moment Stormzy, whose debut album hit number 1, and was only 9 years old when Boy in da Corner came out, he lays waste to the younger generation: “No excuse for you new recruits, bunch of dilutes, and a few flukes / I’ve been out of the loop, gotta pepper MCs with a few nukes / Bunch of fashion MCs, think they’re too cute.”
Most of all it is Wiley, who has addressed his errant mentee countless times in songs and in interviews over the past decade, often expressing remorse and a desire to make up and collaborate again. Dizzee is having none of it. “There ain’t ever gonna be another crew again, so tell Willy that I don’t need a pen pal / Stop writing me these letters cos I don’t know what to do with them / It ain’t ever gonna be ‘03 or ‘02, they don’t do it how I did it / Somebody tell me what I’ve gotta prove again.” Although older, wiser and more worldly – deftly covering big issues such as the gentrification of his hometown – Dizzee displays some of the same scowling defensiveness that informed Boy in da Corner. Even when he was briefly in Wiley’s legendary grime crew, Roll Deep, he was always a loner, never well-disposed to music as a team effort.
Both albums are suffused with a guarded sense that there are people he shouldn’t trust, people willing him to fail, hiding in plain sight: “If I fall on my face, would it validate you?” he asks the world at large on Focus.
Sonically, Raskit rejects a direct revival of 2003-era grime sound, but there is a gratifying sense of adventurousness and freedom in the production, Dizzee finally freed from the generic forms of dance-pop. The twinkly Twilight Zone theme and shlock horror keyboard stabs on Wot U Gonna Do are a particular highlight, while on She Knows What She Wants, Dubai and the Palm are namechecked. On Dummy, a subtle West Coast G-funk synth line reminds us of Dizzee’s long-standing obsession with American hip-hop – often overlooked because of his unapologetically London-sounding accent, slang and double-time vocal delivery.
Above all, Raskit brings a vital truth to bear, and settles a matter left up in the air for more than a decade: at his best, as a rapper, as a lyricist, Dizzee Rascal is still unbeatable, certainly among his UK peers. The rhymes within rhymes, assonance, witty wordplay and vivid storytelling – reflective but never romanticising of his roots – set him apart, and raise the bar for everyone else. It’s been worth the wait.