Dizzee Rascal is a brain-joltingly distinctive MC and producer who released two devastating albums by age 19. He is also a terrible interview. And while his responses to a journalist's questions sound like the clichés athletes reflexively spout, Dizzee's music is anything but trite. The East London artist is all about action, not analysis.
Dizzee Rascal (20-year-old Dylan Mills) cut his teeth on London's pirate radio stations and on the UK garage-rave circuit, where improvisation is essential. Flexing an urgent flow-crunching Brixton slang with Kingston patois, he's become the first breakout artist from England's grime scene, an underground phenomenon that's evolved into arguably the decade's most riveting mutation of urban music. Grime is a pressurized conflation of hiphop, dancehall, drum 'n' bass, UK garage, and Miami bass. Most of its major players are young, and the music carries the hyper-intense urgency of teens in hormonal turmoil and of underprivileged youth itching to escape poverty.
Rascal's 2003 Mercury Prize- winning debut full-length, Boy in da Corner, announced the arrival of a young MC who'd done some mad living and could relate conflicted thoughts that alternately repulse listeners and make their throats lump up. "Cut 'Em Off" lays out Diz's street cred and stakes out his territory as a gangsta: "I'll make you collapse/leave gaps in your face/…Stop dreaming, I'm your worst nightmare." The tough talk contrasts with an absurdly delicate Plaid-like synth motif and constipated beats.
While he draws on hiphop's time-honored tradition of ruffneck braggadocio, Dizzee can also induce pathos with surprising tenderness. On the poignant album closer "Do It!" he raps in a choked voice, "I've seen a lot/Maybe more than I can take," and the lines strike deep. "Sittin' Here" convincingly portrays inertia and paranoia with a tender Asian bamboo-percussion motif and sluggish beats that hit like the Neptunes at 16 rpm. Rascal somehow makes a song about stasis utterly compelling.
To ears weaned on U.S. hiphop, Dizzee's rhythms may seem funkless and awkward. Ironically, Boy's funkiest moment occurs on "Fix Up, Look Sharp," which is constructed almost entirely from '80s rocker Billy Squier's "The Big Beat," the boxiest, least-subtle break ever, over which Diz fervently spits about his skills and hardness like his hero, Jay-Z, whom he opened for at Wembley Stadium last year.
Boy's 2004 follow-up, Showtime, reflects Dizzee's struggle to adjust to life in fame's klieglights. He delivers verbal beatdowns to jealous haters and utters defensive statements about how his ruggedness hasn't been compromised by success's fringe benefits, including hobnobbing with American rap royalty (Neptunes' Pharrell Williams is a fan; Diz has remixed an E-40 track; and Rascal joined Nas onstage at a recent gunshot-marred London gig). "You people are gonna respect me if it kills you," he outlines in "Respect Me." But Dizzee's delivery--like many British MCs--comes off as almost genteel. Even when threatening violence, he sounds more like a school headmaster than a street thug.
Sonically, Showtime packs more punch and definition than does Boy. As always, Diz's production is all about extremes, emphasizing distorted bass frequencies, pseudo-East-Asian percussion, and bleepy videogame emissions. Despite Showtime's relatively greater accessibility, it still will cause many American hiphoppers' faces to scrunch uncomprehendingly.
Speaking of extremes, Showtime also displays Dizzee's expanding range. "Graftin'" resembles Tricky's ominous "Strugglin'," but is much heavier and less vulnerable, with its menacing atmosphere, lethal dub bass, and scathing synth stabs brandished like knives. Then there's "Dream," which references Rodgers & Hammerstein and Captain Sensible while homaging Jay-Z's hokey "Hard Knock Life." It's a uniquely monotonous electro game-show theme parody.
"I never get comfortable with my art," Dizzee says, "never think, 'Yeah, that's it now.' I'm always trying to go that step farther." He's a man (child) of his word.