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September 18, 2004

British MC finds his voice on follow-up album

Like any kid who keeps his ear to the music underground, while keeping a safe distance from anything resembling The Scene, I check pitchforkmedia.com pretty much daily. Admittedly, when I was 19 and naïve, I took most everything that Pitchfork's writers said as gospel; the labels of "awesome" and "sucks" applied to various new releases might as well have been dropped on stone tablets from above. I took my musical cues from the oft-pretentious, harshly critical site, tossing aside Rolling Stone and Spin as musical gospel when they started to lose their credibility and, well, general quality. Pitchfork not only provided me with news, reviews, and inside jokes, but, I thought, a direct link to hipster tastes, which I wanted.

Even today, I'm still not immune to the infamous Pitchfork rating scale; any record that merits an 8.0 or above almost always earns my attention. Thus, when Dizzee Rascal, aka 19-year old Dylan Mills from East London, dropped his debut Boy in Da Corner in 2003, and Pitchfork tossed it a 9.4, I was infinitely intrigued. He's a teenager! He's English!! He's been through hard knocks!!! He looks badass on the album cover!!!! I couldn't wait to hear it. Of course, I wasn't about to buy the import, and I don't have Soulseek, so I would have to wait until XL released it in the States in January. And I was in Mexico until March, so that delayed my listening another two months. Man, was it painful.

When I finally bought Boy in Da Corner this past spring, I felt a little duped. True, Pitchfork wasn't the only source of ringing praise for Dizzee and his debut; the record did win the Mercury Music Prize for best British album of the year. However, I wasn't all that impressed. Maybe it was my disappointing introduction to English rap from two years earlier, as the Streets' debut album with its constant two-stepping left me yearning for "American" beats. Except for Dizzee's sometimes thrilling, sometimes grating East London rasp, I found the record to be, with notable exceptions, boring. Too little variety, too much two-step…too taken by the hype.

It's been barely a year since the British release of Boy in Da Corner, but already Dizzee is hungry to justify the hype that left me feeling $12 poorer. Although it is probably simply a symptom of prolificacy, Dizzee's quick follow-up, Showtime, feels like a response to touring mate the Streets' A Grand Don't Come For Free, released in May on Vice. A finalist for this year's Mercury Prize, Mike Skinner's second record has been lauded for its minimalism, paring down not only the white MC's sparse beats and lazy rhymes, but also the themes, as the album is quite literally a day in the life of a pretty slothful guy. Pitchfork lofted the album to great heights, and I bought it (the hype, that is; I got the record for free from Vice). An eternal fan of the concept album, I was sold on Skinner's vision, and I pronounced the Streets to be my chosen English rapper.

However, I'm starting to reconsider this proclamation. In nearly ever way, Showtime is an improvement over Boy in Da Corner, as Dizzee Rascal's ghetto kid shtick has transformed into a self-aware aggression. Not to say that Dizzee didn't sound a bit pissed off on the first record; rather, Showtime allows him to focus his energies and that near-Cockney yelp on a more pertinent bullseye: himself, and the people who still doubt the Rascal. While the Streets evolved through a more focused album concept, playing exclusively to Skinner's strengths as an MC, Dizzee has evolved by upping the ante, complicating the beats, the rhymes, and whatever deserves his lyrical attention.

The album, and its title track, takes Dizzee out of the figurative corner, as well as the literal one in which he sat on that great debut cover. Dizzee is no longer that hardscrabble kid who's just starting to make it, still the underdog. This record is his turn to justify all the attention, bringing himself front and center and unafraid. While "Showtime" is typical Dizzee, "Stand Up Tall," the album's second track and first single, is the first sentence in his manifesto, which apparently includes a section on video game buzzes and infectious, propulsive beats. This song is unlike anything on Boy in Da Corner, simply because of the speed at which it travels; it's not weighed down by trash can thumps like so many tracks on the debut, instead nearly flying off the rails and maybe sliding onto American hip hop stations.

Although "Stand Up Tall" is clearly the most cheery and contagious song on Showtime, it does set the tone for most of the record's standout tracks. Where I once heard plodding I now hear Dizzee mixing up the beats and rhymes not unlike Eminem, a tactic that gives more weight to his replies to the haters on the mid-album trilogy of "Hype Talk," "Face," and "Respect Me." He's also bolstered by a few choice guest spots, with the golden-voiced Vanya accompanying on the survival ballad "Get By," and the cutup Marga Man playing against Dizzee's straight man on "Girls." The Rascal even tries his hand at a children's song with "Dream," in which he could pass for Eddie Murphy's Mr. Robinson character. In short, if anyone was bored by Boy in Da Corner, Dizzee now boasts the musical diversity to make you listen again.

This record is perhaps best summarized by my favorite moment on the album. On "Learn," the beat briefly drops out of the chorus as Dizzee responds in near falsetto to those who don't know East London: "Who the fuck are you?" is his simple reply. Who are you to doubt me, to question me? However, a few tracks later, Dizzee's arrogance turns to paranoia, as he threatens, "You people are gonna respect me if it kills you." Perhaps he still is the boy in the corner, merely putting on airs to cover a vulnerability at his core.

No matter the state of Dizzee Rascal's self-esteem, Showtime is a statement, and the perfect follow-up to his promising yet flawed debut. What started off as the hip hop Year of the Concept Album with Kanye West's The College Dropout, Madvillain's Madvillainy, and the Streets' A Grand Don't Come For Free has evolved into the Year of the Sophomore Statement. Mike Skinner already got the ball rolling back in May, and Dizzee Rascal is merely the first in a much-anticipated stretch of second albums, as Talib Kweli's The Beautiful Struggle sees release at the end of September, and Mos Def finally drops The New Danger in October after five years of acting and occasional Bush bashing.

Who knows where Dizzee will stand at the end of the year, after the critics have evaluated these "response records"? Pitchfork has already awarded Showtime an 8.6, a terrific rating, but still a step below his debut album. Baloney. But, in the days of Fox News and Swift boat attacks and counter attacks, I guess there's no sense in trusting the media, anyway.