[21 December 2005]
It’s the age old question—when you come out like a house afire, how do you keep the fire burning? Ms. Dynamite hit the UK like a little neutron bomb back in 2002, winning all manner of prizes and awards, even beating out Doves, David Bowie, and The Streets for the Mercury Prize that year in an uncharacteristic landslide. Ms. Dynamite was a breath of fresh air for a stagnant UK R&B scene that had seen too many acts flame out, and her aggressive lyrics and hip-hop style were infectious. She was brash, never afraid to speak what was on her mind, and she conquered the country’s listeners, even if she never quite made as much of a splash overseas.
After such a well-regarded solo debut, the artist born Niomi McLean-Daley could have gone a number of routes with her much anticipated follow-up. Ultimately, she chose an angry form of maturity. You see, in the time between albums, the Ms. has borne a little Dynamite, and as such, her sense of responsibility has increased tenfold. A listen through Judgement Days betrays a sense of urgency, an insatiable desire to denounce as many of the evils of the world as possible, exorcise a few personal ghosts, and plead for simpler times.
It is this sense of responsibility that both blesses and dooms Judgement Days.
Ms. Dynamite is at her best on Judgement Days when she’s angry, and she’s angry a lot. The most scathing barbs are directed at her own father, on the aptly titled “Father”. “I spent 23 years trying to be the fucking man you should be / Taking care of your responsibility / Putting clothes on our back and shoes on our feet / No help, but you always had your bag of weed,” she rants, over a dramatic piano-and-string production that recalls Mary J. Blige at her most dramatic. Perhaps most effectively, she describes the effect that an absentee father has on her brother and her mother, taking some of the emphasis off of herself. “Father” is the darker, more personal flipside of a song like A Little Deeper‘s “Put Him Out”, the former allowing a glimpse of the childhood issues that could lead to the scathing anti-deadbeat diatribes of the latter.
Almost as harsh is “Put Your Gun Away”, a seriously bumpin’ track taking down the gun-toters in the clubs that admittedly loses some of its power given Dynamite’s implication that guns aren’t really evil, they’re just “fuckin’ with her vibe” as she so eloquently puts it. More topical (though a bit less musically evocative) are the renunciation of black-on-black violence in “Self Destruct” and the quiet, understated, acoustic-guitar dominated “Mr. Prime Minister”. While, as an American, I can’t necessarily empathize with the vitriol dedicated to the subject of the latter song, lines like “You said things would change when you wanted our vote / But it stayed the same, Mr. Prime Minister” are universal enough that it’s easy to replace “Prime Minister” with a well-placed “President”.
With all of the bad blood to go around, however, it’s tough to swallow the lighter fare that Judgement Days offers—“Back Then” is a pleasant little song about a teenage love with a joyfully retro production style (complete with vinyl static), but when a line pops up like “Hidin’ down the street so my mother couldn’t see him / Oh, she woulda given us a hell of a beatin’”, it hearkens uncomfortably to “Father”‘s sentiment of “Mama was so damn angry / The way she treated me was unforgivable”. She sings the former line with a sense of wistful reminiscence, even adding a giggle to the end of it, but the context of the song as a part of this album lends it an unfortunate undercurrent of abuse. More successful is the over-the-top bubbliness of “Shavaar”, a tribute to the life-affirming feelings a young son can provide, and the welcome return to the reggae styling of her debut on the kinda-cute “When I Fall in Love”.
There are two songs on Judgement Days that merge the two styles, and they open and close the album. “Judgement Day” opens the album, while serving as the album’s first single, and it’s a perfect choice—it’s got a radio-ready construction, so it’s easy to digest, but there’s little doubt that Dynamite is courting a little bit of controversy when that candy coating houses nuggets like “The pharmaceutical industry need to get paid / They’re sitting on a cure / Watching newborn babies die of AIDS”. Slightly more subtle is the cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” that closes the album. Quiet and plaintive, “Redemption Song” is the statement of hope, a plea and a wish for freedom from the evils of which she speaks. Abrasive as she may often be, Ms. Dynamite has a two-year-old reason to wish the best for the future.
Certainly, that hope is all the more reason to fight. A Little Deeper was the explosive arrival—Judgement Days is the not-quite-perfect but undoubtedly well-intentioned start of the battle.