By now, everyone should be used to hip-hop causing controversy, but even so, the storm about south London rapper Dave’s most recent single Black is startling. When the follow-up to his 2018 No 1 Funky Friday was added to the Radio 1 playlist, it provoked a deluge of complaints from listeners: enough that breakfast show host Greg James felt obliged to address the issue on air, while Annie Mac defended the song on Twitter. The startling thing is that Black isn’t the kind of rap track that people normally get upset about: the standard bugbears of violence, misogyny or homophobia are nowhere to be heard.
Instead, it’s a complex, intelligent examination of racial identity that puzzles at the blanket use of the word “black” to describe a multitude of different ethnicities, that rails against institutionalised racism and cultural appropriation but doesn’t shy away from pointing out failings within the rapper’s own community. To judge by Annie Mac’s response, there has been a hint of “actually, all lives matter” about the criticism the track engendered. “If you are genuinely offended by a man talking about the colour of his skin and how it’s shaped his identity,” she said, “then that is a problem for you.”
It’s baffling and depressing: an artist who genuinely has something to say being shouted down for saying it. But, if nothing else, the fact that Dave chose to trail his long-awaited debut album with a single like Black tells you a lot about the album itself. His path to success has been the standard one followed by British rappers in recent years: exposure on SBTV and Radio 1Xtra, self-released singles and EPs, the inevitable co-sign from Drake. But, despite its guest appearances from J Hus, Burna Boy and Ruelle, Psychodrama is an album that seems intent on setting a degree of distance between Dave and his peers. It’s structured as a kind of concept album, with songs linked by spoken-word sections ostensibly featuring the rapper’s psychotherapist. Its centrepiece, Lesley, isn’t a previous hit – the string of singles that preceded Black are noticeable by their absence – but an 11-minute track that depicts an abusive relationship and its shattering fallout in harrowing detail.
Despite the presence of hit-making producer Fraser T Smith – who progressed from knocking together the pop-rap singles that brought Tinchy Stryder success a decade ago to helming Stormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayer – the album’s sound is spare and sullen, its beats lightly decorated with moody piano figures and ghostly snatches of warped vocals, its tone unsparingly downbeat and sombre. Even the most pop-facing track, the ostensibly romantic Voices, comes replete with intimations of paranoia and mental illness. There are chinks of light about the music on Purple Heart, or the Drake-esque Location, but you’d never describe them as party-starting bangers.
Moreover, those tracks serve largely as a brief moment of respite between plunges into bleak, street-level reportage. Streatham casts an unsentimental eye over the rapper’s youth; Screwface Capital starts out swaggering about success and sexual prowess, but becomes increasingly dark and despairing, unable to shake off the ghosts of the past, before the lyrics crash to a halt. The last minute and a half is entirely instrumental, given over to a haunting, jazzy keyboard solo, as if the rapper can’t face talking any more.
The concluding Drama features a recording of a telephone conversation lauding Dave’s commercial success, but the person speaking is the rapper’s older brother, calling from prison, where he’s currently serving a life sentence for his involvement in the murder of Sofyen Belamouadden at Victoria Station in 2010. The ensuing track is constructed as a kind of dialogue between the siblings, Dave raging at his brother – “I lost the only person I ever fucking idolised” – and recounting the complex psychological impact of his conviction, emotional shut-down chafing against a firing of determination: “I don’t have a vision of a marriage or a wedding ring / World domination in music or it ain’t anything.”
On the face of it, Psychodrama seems a strange way to go about achieving the latter: unvarnished and emotionally raw, it frequently makes for tough listening. Equally, as a showcase for Dave’s talents, it unquestionably works. His lyrics are smart, thoughtful, unflinching and self-aware. In a world where artists seem terrified of their audience hitting the fast-forward button, of skipping to the next song on the streaming service playlist, it’s a big ask to confront listeners with an 11-minute rap track, especially when the subject matter is as unremittingly grim as that of Lesley, but it’s genuinely gripping. Indeed, it says something about how incisive Dave is as a writer that the album lasts for the best part of an hour, and not a minute of its running time seems wasted or padded out. The end result is certainly the boldest album to emerge from UK hip-hop’s renaissance. It may also be the best. However big its ambitions, Dave has the talent to fulfil them.
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Drifting psych-pop in two parts, the new single by NY quartet Crumb sounds pleasingly like the work of Broadcast’s distant UK cousins.