Thanks to the Streets, Ms. Dynamite, and other bright lights of the scene, British hip-hop is no longer the joke it’s often been. It’s even less of a laughing matter on Boy in da Corner, the much-heralded debut of 19-year-old rhymer Dylan Mills, a.k.a. Dizzee Rascal. On ”Sittin’ Here,” the opening track, we find Dizzee at home, playing CDs and staring into space, numb from ”ninja bikes, gun fights, and scary nights.” The disc ends, 14 tracks later, with the cautiously optimistic ”Do It,” in which Dizzee cops to his malaise and acknowledges the need to be more positive: ”It’s getting boring always being miserable and sad,” he intones. ”Stretch your mind to the limit/You can do it,” he urges in the chorus, as if trying to rouse both the listener and himself.
With its homemade beats and clammy, trapped-in-the-Underground ambience, the latest incarnation of British hip-hop — dubbed ”grime” — recalls the early days of American hip-hop (particularly the stripped-down singles of Def Jam legends like LL Cool J). Even in that context, though, the dozen-plus songs between ”Sittin’ Here” and ”Do It” constitute one of the strangest, bumpiest musical journeys we’re likely to experience on record this year. Winner last year of England’s coveted Mercury Prize, ”Boy in da Corner” consists of little more than knob-twirling sound effects and skittish, booming bass lines punctuated by firecracker bursts, answering-machine beeps, and electronic whiplashes. The music is a low-tech, less digestible version of the computerized funk Missy Elliott and Timbaland have perfected on Elliott’s albums. But unlike those discs, ”Boy in da Corner” isn’t interested in flow. Its goal is maintaining a constant state of unease, which is in keeping with Dizzee’s surreal style of rapping. Dissecting feckless men and the teenagers they impregnate in ”I Luv U,” he can be mocking or sarcastic. Acting the role of street hustler in ”Cut ‘Em Off” and ”2 Far,” he spews out verbiage, gulping and elongating his words; the manic energy he displays on the over-the-top Goth rap of ”Jus a Rascal” is hilarious.
From this unsettling clatter emerge moments of innovation, even poignancy. Dizzee’s vignettes of lower-middle-class life and its careworn regulars have a you-are-there urgency. In ”Jezebel,” he relates, with genuine sympathy, the tale of a drug-besotted single mom who picks up men at raves and is ”no longer young, but the boys still come.” His ruminative side pokes through on both ”Do It” and ”Brand New Day,” wherein he wonders: ”When we ain’t kids anymore, will it still be about what it is right now/Like fighting for anything, anytime and acting without a care anywhere.”
Take away his slang and the aural scuzz, though, and it’s clear Dizzee is in need of seasoning. His put-downs of fake OGs and divas (”Wot U On”), not to mention his name checking of tired icons like Freddy Krueger and ”Sean Puffy Combs,” are as mundane as those of many American rappers. At its most tedious, the CD sounds like a caffeinated voice nattering on over videogame blurts and beeps.
Much like the all-encompassing anxiety invoked by the songs, the amelodic minimalism that dominates ”Boy in da Corner” is very much of its time. Rap appears to have splintered into two factions: mass-audience hip-hop, which uses any trick in the book (guest R&B singers or samples) in order to obtain airplay, and alternative rap, which views musicality with outright suspicion. In ways both good and bad, ”Boy in da Corner” falls into the latter camp. All of which makes you wonder: Whatever happened to hip-hop that’s accessible yet still (as stellar examples Run-DMC once put it) tougher than leather? Maybe the time will come when Dizzee Rascal will be interested in answering that question. For now, though, he and his peers are more than happy to paint themselves into dank — if often illuminating — corners of their own.