Roots Manuva review – his most haunting, uncompromising music yet

Islington Assembly Hall, London
The eccentric hip-hop pioneer relishes playing street philosopher and party starter while delivering some of his finest songs

“I want to big up Barry White,” announces a wild-eyed Rodney “Roots Manuva” Smith. “Barry White saved my life.” Ten songs in, Smith has stripped down to a black shirt and trousers, having slowly discarded an ensemble – including camel hair military overcoat and a camouflage hoodie pulled over black bowler hat – that was so hobo, yet chic, that he could have walked off a catwalk or left a soup-kitchen queue.

Like his disjointed get-up, Smith has never quite fitted in, choosing to do his own eccentric thing. He fused both the transatlantic boom-bap of hip-hop and a soundtrack of dub and dancehall from closer to home in Britain, coining a voice for the nation’s rap that for once wasn’t beholden to the US, revelling in its own dialect. He cut the sublime Witness (One Hope), still UK hip-hop’s most beloved anthem, but later ceded radio hits and the accompanying glitz to the grime stars who followed him, instead recording challenging, wildly inventive albums that often mined the more troubled reaches of his psyche.

Roots Manuva at Islington Assembly Hall.
Wilful and unpredictable … Roots Manuva. Photograph: Phil Bourne/Redferns

Smith’s latest album, Bleeds, follows this path to some dark, despairing corners, and tonight, as he murmurs, “Most broke cunts are all true bastards/And most rich cunts are even more bastards” on the bleak stomp of Hard Bastards, you can hear echoes of the Old Testament sermonising he grew up with. Musically, he swings between sombre, urban hymns and brash, freaky funk (the stuttering chaos of Facety 2:11, produced by 4-Tet, is cold, futuristic and maddeningly addictive). His mood seems similarly wilful and unpredictable, one moment gleefully tossing tangerines to the audience, the next clutching at his head for focus as he delivers the poignant, soulful exhale of Fighting For (dedicated to “anyone dealing with domestic problems, like me”). Smith plays wizened street philosopher and mischievous party starter with equal relish, his lyrical vision vast, and containing multitudes.

“This isn’t a request line,” he deadpans to an audience shrieking for the hits at encore. As it is, Smith treats the faithful to a dulcet, melancholic Dreamy Days, before marking a second encore with a riotous Witness. Beyond that hyper-elastic beat – sending the Dr Who theme skanking through dub’s hall of contorting mirrors – the song is a triumph of rap’s favourite game of self-mythology, with Smith bigging up his own “off-key tip”, that weird brilliance that has set him apart from the pack for two decades now. And if that “off-key tip” has now led him to some of his most haunted, uncompromising music yet, tonight proves that it is also among his finest.


Stevie Chick

The GuardianTramp

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