Over the course of his career, Dizzee Rascal has rarely been afraid to stand out from the pack. From squeaky-voiced East London youth to hardscrabble Southern hip-hop fetishist, Rascal has tried on new personas the way that most emcees try on sneakers. And while he may have flirted with mainstream sounds on his last two albums, he’s never made an earnest grab for pop stardom… until now. As its cartoonish cover suggests, Tongue N’ Cheek finds Rascal bidding farewell to the underground that birthed him. Chocked full of dance floor-friendly beats, big name producers and massive hooks, the record is an undeniably valiant bid for stardom. Yet, while this approach results in some mindless fun (not to mention three consecutive #1 singles in the UK and counting), longtime fans will be disappointed to find that Rascal has sacrificed a good deal of depth and complexity in the name of accessibility.
Take lead track “Bonkers”, for example. Backed by a massive beat and a Justice-esque distorted bass line, the song cribs from the French house/hip-hop crossover blueprint that Kanye West sketched out with “Stronger”. Yet, unlike with “Stronger”, there’s not much to Armand Van Helden’s production here, save for a series of simplistic rhythms. Worse yet are the lyrics (“Some people think I’m bonkers / But I just think I’m free / And I’m just living my life / There’s nothing crazy about me”), which feel like the hollow aspirations of a not-quite-celebrity. When it comes to lyrics, however, the following track, “Road Rage”, marks the album’s nadir. Yes, it’s really a song about road rage, a fact that’s immediately revealed by the song’s opening couplet (“Beep! Beep! Coming through! / Move over! Yeah you!”).
As the album nears its midpoint, Rascal turns his attention toward the ladies. On “Dance wiv Me”, he competes with R&B singer Chrome for the listener’s attention over a nuevo disco Calvin Harris track; on “Freaky Freaky”, Cage provides a boilerplate slow jam. On both songs, Rascal is at his most lascivious, though Lil’ Wayne he ‘aint. Even as he recounts that he “did it in a council flat on a landing”, he promises that “I ‘aint forceful but I’m still hardcore” and invites only “independent ladies” to “bring that pussy over here”. These are minor concessions, sure, but in tempering his tales of conquest with a few disclaimers, Rascal manages to distinguish himself from his far less apologetic American peers.
That’s not to say, however, that Rascal is above trying to emulate American hip-hop. On “Chillin’wiv da Man Dem”, he reaches for the laidback vibe of “Gin and Juice” but his hyperactive flow feels at odds with the song’s easy gait. “Money Money” meanwhile, feels like a throwback to Maths + English, with its brash, Cashmoney-like production and wallet-waving boasts.
Ultimately, Tongue ‘N Cheek is at its best when it veers slightly to the left of the radio dial. “Can’t Tek No More” finds Shy FX dropping a sample from British reggae group Aswad, as Rascal waxes political in the foreground. “Dirtee Cash”, built around samples from The Adventures of Stevie V’s 1990 hip-house hit “Dirty Cash (Money Talks)”, provides fertile ground for Rascal’s musings on the economic crisis. And “Bad Behaviour”, a stuttering, disorienting track produced by Tiësto—yes, that Tiësto—proves that Rascal is still an expert when it comes to navigating slippery sonic territory.
When he first emerged from obscurity, Dizzee Rascal was noteworthy largely because he was distinctive. His use of harsh, 8-bit sounds and candid observations on English street life set him apart from his peers both at home and abroad. It’s ironic then that a mere six years later, grime’s last man standing seems to want nothing more than to disappear into the mainstream pop landscape. While Tongue ‘N Cheek is easily more instantly gratifying than Rascal’s previous albums, it lacks the unique perspective and replay value of his more nuanced work. But perhaps that’s the point. After all, a little disposability never kept an album from the top of the charts.