I’d listened to Speech Debelle a couple of times before her debut album was nominated for a Mercury Prize (Britain’s yearly award for best pop/rock album; past winners include Pulp, PJ Harvey, Dizzee Rascal and The Arctic Monkeys), and I’d warmed to the delicacy of her hip-hop flow, despite not being that entranced by her tunes. I decided I’d give her another listen now, particularly since she is just now being released in the United States of Y’all.
Speech Debelle is a mid-twenties, middle-class, Black English rapper, with thoughtful, sometimes naïve lyrics and a fresh, sunny disposition; her rapping is well-executed yet very gentle, very considered. This album’s thirteen songs (slightly too many, in my view) are set to some very airy and understated ambient sounds of piano, strings and brass by Pajiba favorite Roots Manuva (that is, TK and I like him). It’s an audacious proposition in an era still dominated by large production values and bold, show-offy rapping, and one that could see her accused of making coffee-house hip-hop. One review I read mentioned Norah Jones as a point of reference, which is deeply unfair.
Starting with the start: “Searching” is the opening track and it eases the listener in very nicely indeed, with warm, soft guitar and a drum beating out a subtle hip-hop rhythm - it has the flavour of a soothing lullaby, and the freshness of a zingy entrée. Debelle’s voice feels like it will be an acquired taste, with its childish tone and soft delivery - but you actually warm to it very fast. Anyway, it’s a good song, with a slightly earnest you-can-do-it proposition and rhymes that for my liking are a little undercooked - but she certainly can rap, and it’s all very well done.
Next up is “The Key,” which is an unmistakable high point of the album. It made me feel very excited indeed the first couple of times I listened to it, and now that I’ve grown used to it, it still gives me a very warm sensation. Set to a light, skittish old-school beat, with a bit of dub bass and some really smooth, sexy clarinet, this is what I like to call a proper rap. It’s so underdone, so light and crisp, that you could miss its excellence if, say, you were an idiot. It all crescendos very splendidly towards the end, and throughout it all, Debelle’s flow is sweet and chatty. It’s an instant wow from me.
Elsewhere, the album can get a little samey: Debelle is an endearing presence, lending charm, sweetness and gravity to perennial topics such as “the absent Dad”; “the bad boyfriend”; “the town I live in”. Her observations, alternately wry and hopeful, anxious and upbeat, always hit the mark. The orchestrations, courtesy of Mr Manuva, are uniformly excellent, with depth coming from piano or guitar, on which he splices some excellent clarinet, or licks of organ, or some stirring strings: he never resorts to anything too cheap or obvious, and this sort of light, jazzy ambience is ideal for Debelle’s delivery.
I liked the violins and cello on “Bad Boy,” the afore-mentioned “bad boyfriend” must-have. It’s an endearing track, which avoids the usual sentimental, self-aggrandizing tropes. I loved the lilting, almost waltzing beat on “Working Weak,” which is — bizarrely — a musing on the merit of having a crap job. The chorus provoked a rare lol in me, as Debelle chants: “Every day/It’s always the same/My boss is an A/ Hoooole!” The dropping of the rhyme on that last syllable makes it very funny.
What else is good? Well, “Daddy’s Little Girl” is a sharp little number, featuring some stark lyrics (“I can’t even remember what you look like”) and a good, trip-hoppy organ in the background. “Live and Learn” is wondrously fresh and light, starting with some Dylanesque, rolling guitar and featuring that bold clarinet again; it’s a positive self-empowerment number that never cloys. And the title track, which rounds off the album, is a wise, sensitive and self-probing piece with lovely, lovely orchestration. You may take issue with Debelle’s sincerity at times, and perhaps wish for a little more sass, a bit more brassiness, but you can’t argue with the way the line “I just want to be loved”, isolated as it is in the song, cuts you to the core.
You may have guessed that I’m not entirely sold on this record: I think that the ballad-y production values and earnest lyrics are very good indeed, and I love the idea of someone breeding hip-hop with singer-songwriter-ish music. But I did hanker, after a while, for more boldness, for a more ballsy approach, for something more sexy and fun. “Spinnin’,” the fourth song on the record, starts really well, with good piano, drums and violin, and a really lovely, playful flow — reminding me a bit of the fun of ‘Ms Dynamitee-ee’ - but it descends into self-regarding, drab mulch in the chorus, which plays like a white textbook approach to hip-hop. If only — and I’m cleverly talking about the album as a whole now, here, folks — it had stayed as finger-snapping all the way through.
Caspar likes books, music and films, and would never be described as “enigmatic.” Read more about him at his blog, Straight Outta Crouch End.
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