Speech Debelle’s second album, Freedom of Speech, confuses artistic seriousness with topical seriousness. Debelle speaks of the Irish potato famine, civil unrest, dependence on oil, depression (economic and internal), and “lies getting old” from repetition. But she can be contradictory in her message, unable to decide between serenity and anger, uplift through pacifism or revolution through threat. Caught up in the importance of her themes, she loses sight of her music’s ability to convey them.
Debelle raps about “serious” topics, like the Great Recession: “They called it a recession cause money is just paper / It’s only representation.” Sometimes she seems to be inciting her listeners (“You need to blaze up a fire”), and at other moments, she throws up her hands: “I can’t do this any longer; I’m tired/ and if I do this any longer, I’ll be a liar.” Debelle speaks to lovers she wants to get rid of (“You’re still in love with your ex”) and lovers she wishes she’d kept. She is not a lighthearted songwriter, and her rapping style is often forceful, with expelled syllables adding to the gravity of the subject she’s addressing.
But Debelle’s aim to use music as a forum for the examination of important issues, both personal and political, can be undercut by her lyrics and delivery. When discussing oil, she raps awkwardly: “Imagine there was no more oil and I don’t mean olive (...) the kind of oil they drill into the earth’s crust for.” Circular digressions and tangents work well for some rappers, but not in Debelle’s heavy hands – there is never any question that the oil she refers to is anything other than the petroleum upon which much of Western civilization depends. (Though now that she mentions it, a song about olive oil wouldn’t be such a bad thing.) On “Angel Wings”, her lyrics verge on kitchsy when she sings “I ain’t afraid of flying, I ain’t afraid of falling.” The connection between falling and flying has been done, most recently by Jeff Bridges playing a country singer in the movie Crazy Heart, and it’s too clichéd at this point to be particularly compelling. On “Blaze a Fire”, Debelle swaggers, “I’m not a pop star; I’m a motherfucking thug,” but saying so doesn’t make it true, and this seems to contradict an earlier track, “Live for the Message”, on which she declares, “I live for the message, spiritual wealth” – a sentiment surely at odds with motherfucking thuggery.
Debelle’s beats often involve quick clusters of bass notes—hammering on “Studio Backpack Rap”, reggae-like on “Shawshank”—that power the songs forward and then drop out for a moment, providing a hefty, lurching momentum. But when you move away from Debelle’s rhythm section, other instruments fail to aid her lyrical cause. Sometimes there are strings, which pour syrup on top of her fire, whether mournful on “Elephant”, weirdly sweeping on “Blaze a Fire”, or faux-disco on “I’m With It”. Acoustic guitar makes an appearance to go with the lyrical cheese of “Angel Wings”. Thankfully the guitars are more often electric and pointed, sometimes appropriately mean, like on “The Problem”, where fuzzy guitars work with whirring synths to add urgency as Debelle sings, “Every day we try to find a way, to get it together (...) You better be afraid of what we got to say / ‘cause when we get it together, it’s a problem.” Rapping and instruments are synergized; Debelle sounds like she can get it together, and it feels like you might not want to be around when she does.
When Debelle eases up a bit on the gas pedal, there are songs, like “Shawshank”, which show that she better articulates intimate personal situations than large-scale social ones. The opening line works to catch up with the beat, giving it an honest, nervous feel—“You notice, you’re so focused / On the things they don’t do or don’t do for you.” It moves easily into a reggae hook with light vocal interplay: someone says, “I gave up sure for unsure”; someone refutes, “never do that.” It’s an investigation of failed love, but by backing off and giving the tune room to breathe, Debelle better communicates a difficult situation. She doesn’t need to be “heavy” to get across important messages.