Speech Therapy, by Speech Debelle (Big Dada Records)

Speech Therapy, by Speech Debelle (Big Dada Records)

This impressive UK hip-hop album is distinctive in both lyrical and musical humility, but with skills to spare

Angst, Ridden. Music review – Tom Jennings
This debut from the South London MC was nearly a decade in gestation, with a host of familiar ghetto complications, and – as she disarmingly acknowledges – personal immaturities, getting in the way. So if Speech Therapy is a pretty condensed diary of overcoming unpromising (to say the least) circumstances, it’s remarkably self-aware and articulate – and thankfully immune from the self-pitying self-indulgence and naff bootstrap-and-bling self-commodification that commercial rap and R&B traditionally frogmarch sassy women into. We’ll have to wait and see whether the album’s success prompts Speech Debelle to cross the Atlantic when future doors here to superior female artistry close – witness Monie Love, Phoebe One, Floetry, Lady Sovereign, Estelle; whereas after The Butterfly Effect (2006), the superb C-Mone simply disappeared off national radar. But for now her frank, intelligent chronicles of struggling to survive the gamut of urban malaise – from family breakdown, homelessness, pennilessness and hopelessness to the lures of criminal anti-sociality – confirm the narcissistic adolescent irrelevance of most Britpop contemporaries.
The distinctiveness of this accomplished first album has already propelled it to Mercury Prize nomination, despite embarrassingly overblown comparisons with Lauryn Hill. What might help it win is the production by Wayne Lotek – best known for the expert reggae-lite revisionism of Lotek Hi-Fi’s Mixed Blessings (2005) – whose breezy acoustic backdrops and jazz-inflected flourishes complement warm vocal textures themselves belying heart-rending honest lyricism. But while such sonics doubtless appeal to the vacuous indie-loving British industry punditry favouring faux-emotional superficiality, to my mind they rather anaesthetise the visceral engagement this MC deserves. Nevertheless, even without beats to match its heart and guts, Speech Therapy is particularly enjoyable because personal tribulations consistently merge into context, effortlessly seasoning biographical rumination with social insight. Better still, neither are touted as any big deal, countering rap’s routine egomania with genuine wisdom courtesy of the school of hard knocks – “I don’t need no boastie words or complicated flows” (‘Finish This Album’), and “I been hurt, and it’s not an excuse but it’s a reason” (title track). Then, more substantive yet equally understated rhetoric is all the more persuasive, as in ‘Wheels In Motion’ (featuring Big Dada labelmate Roots Manuva):
“They told me I’ll never make it, too smart for my own good / I get rude when they use their authority to abuse / I’m born to prove that rules were made for the obedience of fools / ... Yeah, I see the way they pronounce the nouns / And listen to the way the vowels sound / Subliminal messages are allowed and executed by executives / Who throw pennies to beggars at London Bridge – them is hypocrites / ... The working class keep the system moving but seem to be systematically losing / Given no choices, who can be choosing? / They say use your vote, but I’ve looked at the parties and I’ve looked around / So if I vote for a choice, will my vote count?”
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 70, No. 15, August 2009.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:
www.variant.org.uk
www.tomjennings.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

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Tom Jennings
Aug 24 2009 16:23

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