Review Summary: The young UK rap star conveys his hardships successfully on his debut.Dave
, also known as Santan Dave, is a rapper hailing from Streatham, a district of South London. He first made waves at the young age of 16 with a remarkable freestyle courtesy of the YouTube channel BL@CKBOX. Many freestyles are blissful and carefree exhibitions of talent. Dave, on the other hand, used the opportunity as a catharsis, speaking on his tumultuous family situation and passionately berating those who have crossed him. It was recorded inside the comforts of a well-lit, air-conditioned studio, but it seemed to Dave that he was in a dark room, pouring out his frustration in hopes that someone might be there to hear it. His fervor was, at the very least, unsettling.
PSYCHODRAMA is his debut studio album, and serves as my introduction to his work as well. Upon hearing of this album through the ‘hiphopheads’ subreddit, I was intrigued to give it a listen, not being familiar with UK rap in the slightest. However, I was rewarded well; PSYCHODRAMA is a collection of thoughtful, personal, and often moving tracks that stands as my favorite hip-hop release of 2019 so far.
PSYCHODRAMA is presented as a product of its namesake — a form of therapy where patients act out scenes, whether they be past experiences or those which can help one prepare for the future. As most songs are dramatizations of emotion to begin with, this does not seem like an ambitious concept to base an album off of. PSYCHODRAMA follows it loosely, with skits from therapy sessions conducted over time being inserted between a few tracks. However, Dave does a good job of following up these skits with relevant topics. Opener “Psycho” functions as Dave’s first session. Dave describes his life before the stardom, catapults himself into ***-talk when the beat switches to half-time, and then comes back down to earth, accompanied only by a piano. On “Environment”, Dave uses the question posed by his therapist as a springboard for his thoughts on being new to fame.
As a rapper, Dave has sharp command of flow and tonality. On PSYCHODRAMA’s resident banger, “Streatham,” Dave effortlessly carries the chorus’s cadence, with slight variations, through the entirety of the first verse and most of the second verse. Toward the end of the second verse, he pulls off a sudden switch to a triplet flow, raising his voice to match the change. He uses these tools across the albums’ 51 minutes to project his thoughts on a wide variety of topics. ‘Black’, although sometimes cliche, is a detailed portrait of the quotidian experiences Dave has lived through as a black man. ‘Voices’ is an anthem celebrating the joy that comes with committing to optimism. It is easily the most radio-aspiring cut on the album, with a heavy electronic influence, but Dave’s wholesome singing makes the track worthwhile. Intimacy is tackled on ‘Purple Heart,’ albeit with little success. The track suffers from an instrumental that feels only halfway there and leaves Dave’s monotone approach sounding uninspired.
The most captivating parts of PSYCHODRAMA are when Dave addresses pain, whether it afflicts him or another. In doing so, Dave rekindles the personality and energy that made his BL@CKBOX freestyle so special. On “Screwface Capital”, Dave immerses the listener in the responsibility thrusted upon him by the absence of a father figure and his older brother Chris, who is currently serving a life sentence:
Tell me what you know about a bag full of bills
And your mom crying out, saying, "Son, I can't take it"
And then staring in the mirror for an hour
With a tear in your eye like, "I gotta go make it"
“Lesley” stands out from rest of the cuts on PSYCHODRAMA, both in runtime and impact. Dave tells the crushing story of a woman unable to escape the throes of an abusive relationship. The climax is jarring enough that my jaw dropped the first time I reached it. Perhaps the most piercing confession:
I'm touched 'cause I've seen women that I love or liked
Cry little red tears through a bloodshot eye
The 11-minute epic is an encapsulating listen, hampered only by some odd pacing of the lyrics toward the middle of the track and an outro that feels glued on.
Given the reflective tone most of the lyrics here take, features are few and far between. When Burna Boy and J. Hus show up on “Location” and “Disaster”, respectively, they contribute well. Burna Boy’s sticky hook is the highlight of “Location”, complete with the ridiculous line about meeting girls at his probation-bound friend’s house that makes me chuckle every time. J. Hus’ similarly excellent hook and charged delivery on “Disaster” complements Dave’s stout baritone as the two rappers blaze through a strong verse.
The production on PSYCHODRAMA is solid, if not overly consistent. None of the beats here stand out from each other. ‘Streatham’, ‘Black’, ‘Environment’, and most tracks here are built off of simple loops, played on the piano or otherwise. There is no left turn which could help push the album’s narrative along. This pushes Dave’s lyrics and rapping abilities to the forefront of every song. However, Dave holds his own well, and therefore the album does not suffer greatly from it. This is not to say that the production is without highlights. The winding story of “Lesley” is pushed along by beautiful embellishments in the guiding harp melody and a growing string section. A playful synth solo caps off the last minute of ’Screwface Capital.’ Closer “Drama” features a snare careening across haunting keys and silky vocal serenades like a racquetball.
Dave was only 20 years old (my age!) at the time of PSYCHODRAMA’s release, and yet he was able to describe the hardships that dogged his youth— and those that continue to linger in his present— with such moving detail. While the album does contain some nonessential material, namely “Purple Heart,” the unnecessary length of “Location,” and the outro of “Lesley,” it is otherwise cohesive and engaging. Dave opens up the final track by proclaiming, “I just done my first psychodrama. And I hope the world hears my craft; I’m excited man, I pray you get to hear my craft. ” For my part, his prayer has been answered. PSYCHODRAMA is an excellent debut, and with Dave’s combined youth and potential, there is plenty of room to grow from here.
Favorite Tracks: “Streatham”, “Location,” “Disaster,” “Screwface Capital,” “Environment,” “Lesley,” “Drama”