Review Summary: One of the very best rap albums of the year.
There can't be too many rap albums out there that kick off with a half-Impressionist, half-atonal piano intro. And kicking off from that into a track called "Welcome to Dystopia", which uses the 'war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength' refrain, on an album called Doublethink
....well, it's all pretty attention grabbing, if nothing else.
This isn't a fully-fledged 1984
-themed concept album, though, and that's probably a good thing. Not because Akala lacks the talent to pull it off - separate grime and UK hip-hop into distinct genres and Akala's one of the very best rappers in the latter category - but because it's a very obvious and pretty tired concept, battered into the ground by Eurythmics, David Bowie, Rick Wakeman, Stevie Wonder, Radiohead, Dead Kennedys, and countless other bands and artists. Surely, it's the most referenced book in popular music, and as good as it is, I don't think anybody needs another album based on it, however good it may be. By track four, though, Akala has all but abandoned the idea, at least in terms of direct quotes.
The point of this one-two punch in the intro and the title, then, is simply to grab, and then hold, your attention. And that's vital for a rapper like Akala, because what he's saying is a lot more important and impressive than how he says it. A track like "I Don't Need" proves as much - it's so slow and methodical that it's not even rap any more, but its message and story detonate that with that much more power for it. It's a worthy message too, dismissing the things young women do to make themselves beautiful to appreciate wit, intelligence, and intimacy instead. In both of these aspects, he echoes his more famous sister's debut album, A Little Deeper
. The difference is that while Ms. Dynamite's socially-minded tracks generally sounded a little weak, as if she was pandering to her perceived audience and toning things down for their benefit, Akala still speaks with authority in moments like this.
It's Akala's ability to succeed where his sister failed, and hold his stance and his composure across any style, that makes this album work. There's a handful of rap-rock experiments here (see "Thick Skin" particularly) that slap the *** out of anything similar attempted by Kano or Lethal Bizzle, which perhaps isn't surprising when you consider that one of Akala's most notable freestyles is called "Arctic Monkeys", for obvious reasons. There's some pretty minimal beats, on "Welcome to Dystopia" (little more than some drums, a barely audible bass drone, and some Bomb Squad-esque noise in the background), some dance on the Renegade Soundwave-esque "XXL" and "Faceless People", which blends hard rock with trance and rap in a way that can't help but recall The Prodigy. Right at the other end of the spectrum, there's the Debussy-esque piano of "Peace" and an experiment with post-rock (!!!) on "Find No Enemy". In terms of sheer diversity, it's got to be regarded as one of the most experimental and brave rap albums of the year.
And yet, while listening, it doesn't really feel like way. It's not as if Akala isn't varying up his rapping, either, with the message of tracks like "Welcome to Dystopia", "I Don't Need", and the anti-racism "Yours and My Children" contrasting with the rugged machismo of "XXL" and the mindless violence pictured on the aggressive verses of the oddly JME-esque "Psycho". It's simply by sheer force of will that Akala keeps it together; he's got an uncanny knack of knowing what ideas will work best over a beat, which allows him to branch out much further than other rappers of similar natural ability, and remains a charismatic, authoritative presence regardless.
The sheer strength and quality of Doublethink
, fittingly, has a double-edged effect. If you're somebody that follows UK hip-hop with regularity, you're going to find a lot to enjoy here, because even if it's not as rugged and raw as recent successes by Orphans of Cush and Iron Braydz, it hits with the same gut-wrenching impact; a better comparison on that front would be Skinnyman's 2004 classic Council Estate of Mind
. If you're somebody who dislikes the whole scene, though, this album is as likely as any to change your mind. Not just because Akala destroys the long-held, outdated stereotype of UK rappers not having anywhere the technical ability of their US colleagues, but because the music is designed to please a crowd that goes beyond hip-hop, and beyond the UK. The reality is that, if the UK rap scene is ever going to make genuine inroads into an international market, it needs albums like this, so DoubleThink
is a release we need to celebrate - if enough people end up hearing this, it could be a game-changer.