Speech Debelle more than has her work cut out for her. First and foremost, she’s a woman trying to make it in the rap game, which we all know is not the easiest battle. Most female rappers propelled into the mainstream find themselves there either because of their connections or for how little clothing they wear—or, in the case of Lil’ Kim, a combination of both. It wasn’t always this way, though. Remember the days when Queen Latifah and MC Lyte were respected solely for their work? They might be held in the same light today, but female rappers continue to struggle to break ground in the way their male cohorts find so easy. But I’m 100 percent certain that will change as the years continue to chug along, especially with the likes of Jean Grae, Invincible, Tiye Phoenix, Boog Brown, and many others continuously making fantastic music. And while some will argue Missy Elliot deserves a spot on that list—and she does—I have a difficult time classifying her as solely “hip-hop” as I would those others.
But then, making it perhaps equally difficult to break out in the states, Debelle hails from the U.K. As if you already didn’t know, few rappers from across the pond have found success here. Of course, the finest example is Slick Rick, the eye-patch wearin’, accented emcee who stands as one of the genre’s living legends. But Slick, like MF DOOM, moved to the U.S. at a young age. So if you take them out of the equation, you’re left with very few true “crossover” acts. Lady Sovereign had one hit (maybe two, but I wasn’t paying attention). The Streets gets a lot of love. How often do you really hear him aside from some knowledgeable listeners’ playlists? Then there is Dizzee Rascal, who has had some success here and there with his latest album Maths + English being distributed by underground heavyweight label Definitive Jux. But that brings me to my next point: Many of these guys and gals are stricken to solely underground appreciation. Other examples of these acts include Funky DL and Roots Manuva, both talented but rarely heard on this side of the Atlantic.
And somewhere in the middle of all of this resides Speech Debelle, a talented newcomer who is sure to absolutely wow some listeners with her debut Speech Therapy. Her lyrical game and delivery resembles a pleasant combination of the talents of Blu and Roots Manuva. Like those two emcees, she wears her heart and almost every other organ on her sleeve for all to see (and hear). She treats you, her listener, like a close friend’s shoulder as she details her life’s troubles and achievements across this sometimes breathtaking, sometimes lacking album. But that’s not to say she is whiny or “emo”, as some folks like to describe anything with slight emotional qualities. Instead, she opens herself up to you and everyone who gives her disc a spin. And she is also as “hip-hop” as any emcee out there, especially when she references such street classics as “Shook Ones Pt. 2” on her gorgeous opening-track, “Searching”.
Like many artists of her kind, Debelle is most comfortable spitting narratives that mostly remain on the darker side of life. With her soft yet demanding voice, she opens up on the downtrodden and inspiring “Better Days”. The track is a haunting piece of beauty sure to captivate anyone who listens. And you cannot deny that lush production and the spooky hook from ghastly-voiced Micachu. Likewise, she waxes poetic on the reggae-ish “Daddy’s Little Girl”, a devastating tale of her never-there father who’s absence made Debelle, in her words, “tough”. She displays that chip-on-her-shoulder attitude on “Go Then, Bye”, a kiss-off of a break-up anthem that anyone with even the slightest bitterness can feel. Typically, you would think that such topics could become boring or possibly repetitive. But the production on here is so flat-out fantastic that you will at least enjoy what’s playing behind Debelle if you aren’t exactly feeling what she’s spitting. The production is akin to a musical kaleidoscope featuring everything from acoustic guitars to orchestral strings to jazzy drums to upbeat brass. In other words, thank you Wayne Lotek, Plutonic Lab, and the talented musicians who helped craft such beautiful songs.
Even overly-done tracks, like the shitty-job anthem “Working Weak”, remain fresh thanks to Debelle’s storytelling. You don’t just hear what she is saying, you feel it. She transports you to her world so effectively it’s almost scary. You can picture yourself in each situation, from calling her boss an “a-hole” to picking up her check. The same could be said for “Finish This Album”, another stellar track. It will likely send chills down your spine if you share Debelle’s high aspirations for life. And it will hit even harder if you’ve sacrificed, hit walls, lost your faith, and, as she says, “hit the bottom of the barrel.” But even with all that pain, you somehow have maintained a positive outlook to grow and one day finish whatever it is you have set out to do.
But Debelle’s efforts become bogged down by meandering tracks featuring hooks that feel tacked on and unnecessary. Or it’s simply that the tracks themselves aren’t up to snuff as a whole. For a failed hook and corny sentiments, look no further than the Michael Franti & Spearhead-esque “Spinnin’” that falls short of reaching the same kind of positive vibes as “Live & Learn”. Equally not worth your time is “Wheels In Motion”, which features the aforementioned Manuva on the hook. Also working against Debelle is her voice. After repeated listens, her somewhat-squeaky, static flow can become monotonous as she rarely switches her cadence or tone. And as any Gang Starr fan knows, even the most captivating monotone emcee can become tiresome.
For the majority of Speech Therapy, though, Debelle keeps you engrossed. Her aforementioned tales of woe, heartache, and unrelenting positivity, amongst other topics, are ones that will leave you thinking about your own life as much as you contemplate hers. She’s a special talent who is primed to make something of herself with a little more polishing. But don’t get it twisted: Speech Therapy is an album you want and need to hear.