CD: Dizzee Rascal, Showtime


Everyone complains about their job sometimes, but only musicians enjoy the privilege of charging people to hear them do so. Nowhere is this expensive grumbling more institutionalised than rap. An MC's debut album is often fuelled by a lifetime of poverty and frustration, so sudden success creates a lyrical quandary. Unless one deftly sidesteps the issue, as the Streets did, by recording the follow-up in the persona of a cash-strapped everyman, there are only two options: embrace success or rail against it. Jay-Z has recorded several albums of which the gist is: "I'm brilliant. Look at my new watch. It's got diamonds on it." Eminem, meanwhile, refined "be careful what you wish for" to a fine art.

Dylan Mills, aka Dizzee Rascal, is caught at the crossroads. The Bow teenager behind the churning anxiety of Boy in da Corner, last year's Mercury-winning debut, was never likely to kick back and enjoy the free trainers, but nor does he treat selling 250,000 albums and reaping blanket critical acclaim as some calamitous misfortune. So the title of Showtime is deeply ambivalent: both a triumphant throwdown and a sardonic dig at his newfound status.

The precedents for Showtime include Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP and Tricky's spotlight-dodging second album, Pre-Millennium Tension. Both were recorded quickly and came with cockily self-referential singles: The Real Slim Shady and Tricky Kid. Dizzee's equivalent is the colossal Stand Up Tall: witty, knowing, and swaggering like Godzilla. Over a pinging computer-arcade synth riff, Dizzee uses the standard pirate radio shout-out to reflect how far he's come. Starting with his "rude boy south-east crew", he proceeds to "big up my Europe, USA crews". On Graftin', he asserts that London "ain't all teacups, red telephone boxes and Buckingham Palace". When he made Boy in da Corner, he wasn't sure anyone would hear it. Now he knows the whole world's listening.

Such playful defiance suits Dizzee. He's too self-aware, too English, for chest-beating bombast, so when he chats on Hype Talk about "invitations to premieres and new flicks", you sense him taking fame's trimmings with a pinch of salt. Even when he's threatening his opponents (of whom much more later) on Everywhere, he's light-hearted and engaging. "I'll punch you in your nostril, I'll punch you in your shin" is as surreal as a playground taunt.

But when Dizzee loses his sense of perspective, his footing goes with it. As the only MC from London's grime scene to make it big (even his erstwhile mentor Wiley has underperformed), he inevitably provokes jealousy; last summer he was stabbed in Ayia Napa. On Hype Talk, he toys with all the rumours of rifts: "Is it true that Wiley skipped the country, left him/ Did he punch Mega [So Solid Crew's Megaman] in the face, try to test him?"

Nevertheless, his defensiveness seems disproportionate. Unlike Eminem, he has not been tarred as public enemy number one. Unlike So Solid Crew, he has not been accused of glamorising gun violence (although he takes pains to clarify his minor criminal record in almost legalistic detail on the spectacularly chippy Respect Me). Too often, he dwells on internecine squabbles of which the average listener knows, and cares, little. Compared with the evocative tower-block angst of Get By or Graftin', this recurring obsession with insular scene politics is a blind alley.

Even so, that's a relatively minor flaw in a record that is, in every other respect, astonishing. Despite the Stand Up Tall video's dimwitted employment of union flags and strippers, murmurings of a more US-friendly direction prove unfounded. There are no hook-ups with Kanye West, only the merest hint of a skit, and even the R&B chorus of Get By is charmingly wonky. And though Dizzee's laptop dystopias are no longer shockingly new, they are ceaselessly ingenious.

Beyond his trademark agitated yelp and panic-attack rhythms are all manner of surprising and compelling sonic twists, from the crawling bass tremor underpinning Graftin' to the ridiculously perky synth motif that dances through Stand Up Tall's chorus. One segue encapsulates Showtime's range. Girls is a migrainous blurt of mutant dancehall on which someone called Marga Man declares that he has "so much gash, no time to rest", which must be nice for him. A moment later comes Imagine, a wrenching lament set to desperately gorgeous ambient cascades. And future hit single Dream, which hijacks Captain Sensible's Happy Talk for a frantically jolly British riposte to Jay-Z's Hard Knock Life, fizzes with chutzpah.

That Dizzee is the most dextrous and quotable MC Britain has ever produced is beyond dispute, but any rapper, however gifted, needs something to rap about, and the trials of fame offer diminishing returns. Dizzee might want to consider how Eminem and Tricky handled their third albums. One accepted his new position and learned to master it, at the cost of his abrasive edge; the other descended into self-immolating paranoia until all but the most hardcore fans had fled weeping. A problem for Dizzee's next album, then. For now, at least, there's no stopping him.


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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