Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 70)
To those gilded with privilege, the gradual onset of life’s responsibilities is something that is naturally taken for granted. The recognition of life, death, sex, and money is slowly introduced to the lucky, with advancing tiers unlocked through adolescence. Progression is never perfect but a controlled access to these things, in theory, guarantees a stable adult in the end, one with as little neuroticism as possible.
Most do not have access to this kind of privilege. Many have some of life’s heaviest responsibilities thrust upon them long before any human should. Confronting the inevitability of death or the toll of reckless sex is nothing any reasonable man would wish upon someone who’s not even old enough to drink but to those born into the cycle of poverty these things are not optional. Without the wonder of money to shield them from the weight of tragedy, these children are forced to grow up overnight.
If rap music was supposed to give a voice to those unfortunate it succeeded but it can be hard to work out the ramifications of that success. Rap sells the drug trade that often exists as the scourge of the neighborhoods that house the poor as glamorous, an easy income to buoy a luxurious lifestyle. Mike Skinner presented his unmistakably London refutation of this lie in 2002 by using rap music to present life on the lower rungs as achingly mundane. A year later, Dylan Mills cracked a bombshell on the London music scene with his own response to the confident lux of American hip-hop. Mills, professionally known as Dizzee Rascal, was thrust into adulthood through the death of his father at an early age. Raised by a single mother in East London, Mills typified the wasted youth, becoming violent and uncontrollable, forcing his mother to fight to keep him in the school system. Dizzee’s talent was unquestionable from a precocious age, signing a solo deal with XL Recordings in 2002 and releasing his debut record in 2003. When that album, Boy in Da Corner
, was released, Dizzee was still so close to his violent upbringing that he was stabbed 5 times the week of its release.
Boy in Da Corner
is painted in every shade of fear. Streaks of anxiety, panic, depression, and the aggressive response provoked are present on nearly every track here. The rapid deterioration of relationships between formerly close friends and the corruption of innocence through careless attempts at intimacy burns through this record. Underlining everything is nostalgia, as Dizzee and his characters step over boundaries that cannot be uncrossed they become sharply aware of how vastly things have changed in such little time. It’s here Mills decides to open the album, crippled by fear and nostalgia, just “Sittin’ Here”. Dizzee sketches his reality with a deft hand, evoking the finest details of crime without touching cliche, “It's the same old story, shutters, runners, cats and money stacks/And it's the same old story, ninja bikes, gun fights and scary nights [...] Window tints and gloves for fingerprints”. His details are dense and evocative both in describing the encroaching harshness of the now and the increasing sweetness of the past. “Cause it was only yesterday after school we'd come outside and meet [...] It was only yesterday, every sunny day was a treat/Now I'm sitting here.”
If Mills’ main objective is to evoke a million different shades of fear through his yelping, urgent delivery, his beats match him blow for blow. Boy in Da Corner
is mostly self produced by Mills and the clarity of vision is staggering. 30 seconds of the opening two songs hit both ends of the fear spectrum, the tense clangs of “Sittin Here” is distant, ominous dread while “Stop Dat”s hyperventilating robot and bee swarm synths is urgent, immediate panic. These beats are shattered ice, menacing, cold, and jagged. “2 Far” and “Jezebel” utilize starkly plucked strings to sustain constant tension while “I Luv U” and “Wot U On?” carpet bomb the mix with huge bass destabilizing bass hits. As a whole, Boy in da Corner
is both a staggering collection of beats and an intimidating one.
Luckily, Mills navigates these beats like he was born listening to them. His on-edge flow nimbly flips through flows to stay ahead of the swift 2-step percussion. But beyond just being a great rapper and an evocative writer, he’s someone who thoroughly deconstructs some of rap's’ most hardened tropes. “Jus’ A Rascal” undermines rap-as-empowerment fantasy by letting you fully inhabit Mills’ roughneck threats, climaxing in a brutal 3rd verse that finds Mills so enraged his clenched throat won’t even let him enunciate entire words, before flipping the script completely, leaving you on the receiving end of a terrifyingly real sounding voice mail threat. “2 Far” hides relevant social commentary (“I don’t obey no policemen ‘cus they forget they’re human/Get excited quickly”) between hardened threats of violence.
Consider raps’ age old rejection of love as intimacy, defined most succinctly by 50 Cent’s “into havin’ sex/ain’t into makin’ love”. But while almost all rappers reject love, very few explain why. Mills goes to great lengths to explain his own inability to love and in doing so exposes the naked fear at its core. “I Luv U” is a document of accidental teenage pregnancy, its title rendered emotionless threat as the walls close in during the round-robin chorus. That girl' some bitch ya know/She keep calling my phone/She don't leave me alone,” the anxiety brought to the forefront of Millls’ strained yelp, “These days I don't answer my phone.” The presence of female MC Shystie is essential here, lending a full 3 dimensions to the track. “Round We Go” tragically traces different threads of love as they become hopelessly tangled up knots, leaving those at the ends heartbroken. “Ain't no love thing here,” Mills bleakly intones at the songs open, “it's just big one cycle here.” “Jezebel” is a sympathetic account of a girl born into a downward cycle of promiscuity, more empathetic and tragic than a typical “good girl gone bad” rap narrative, ending on the same bitterly nostalgic note the rest of the album frequently touches upon (“If only she was six years younger, damn”).
Only twice does the constant atmosphere of anxiety and fear that lords over Boy in da Corner
break. Once for “Fix Up Look Sharp”, a mighty single that exists solely as a platform for Mills to unleash the full power of his abilities. Lifting Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat” wholesale, “Fix Up Look Sharp” is 3 minutes of pure flow, set free from the oppressive confines of its surroundings. “They're trying to see if Dizzee stays true to his grammar/Being a celebrity don't mean *** to me/*** the glitz and glamor/Hit em with the Blitz and Hammer,” Mills barks in an english accent so thick it may as well be another language to American ears.
The mood shifts a second time for “Brand New Day”. Even if most of its lyrics are still about the same things presented on “Sittin Here”, the song’s beautiful melody and triumphant chorus are like warm sun rays breaking through heavy cloud coverage. More than anything, it’s one bar that speaks the optimism inherent in this album. Despite the absolutely harrowing reality presented on Boy in da Corner
, the record comes off as optimistic due to the reality of its existence. Its that one lyric that encapsulates this. That an East London teenager can come out of nowhere to release a debut album of such unquestionably hot fire it gets high praise from the typically stodgy Rolling Stone and runs away with the Mercury Music Prize. That one teenager can overcome insurmountable odds to be heard, to escape a past that should have resulted in his pointless death, to create a paradigm shifting piece of art and just how joyous that fact is. It is one lyric above all that captures that miracle.
“I put my feet down and rise