A few weeks ago on a bleary tea break, I stumbled across a review of Naked in a copy of The Sun that was lying open on the table. It was written in the style of a “witty” poem, and with a couple of lazy and thoughtless verses, at once resigned the record to the mumblings of an old poet trying his hand at a bit of hip-hop. It was bollocks frankly, and in a lurid tabloid rag like The Sun, set amongst bland, numbing reports about Celebrity Big Brother and Pete Doherty, it was a dismissal of one of the most pulsating, alive and head-spinning hip-hop releases you will hear this year. It doesn’t always work, the musical backing sometimes whispers when it should rage, but when it does, Zephaniah’s torrent of words are like a broken bottle to the face of The Sun, New Labour, New Media; to the same old wars, to white culture and black culture, and to himself.
As a poet, Zephaniah has achieved an international profile and a fierce respect but has still continued to burn. Though as much a part of the meagre poetry classes I attended at school six or so years ago as the other bunch of laureate poets and romantic writers, from what I have read of his poems, novels and writings, and seen of his many campaigns for social justice, there has never been a stench of comfort surrounding him—the stench of having made it in the multicultural, metropolitan, successful New Britain. His words are eloquent, funny and angry and belong less to academic textbooks and more to a form of public storytelling that’s ragged and vital and bursting with music. As such, his words seem at their most natural being spewed out over beats and rhythms.
Where this album comes as something of a shock is in the minimalist urban beats that provide the backing for Zephaniah’s poems. Apart from a few fleeting moments, the reggae and dub sounds that have defined Zephaniah’s previous musical releases are absent. This, it has to be said, comes with mixed results. Whereas on “Rong Radio Station”, the spiralling jungle beats are married perfectly to Zephaniah’s polemic, “Touch” sounds almost blandly generic and strangely devoid of any real invention. Mostly though, realized by the visceral thrill of it all, Naked is an acute and revealing record. As the opening track—“Uptown Downtown”—dances on the line between hip-hop and reggae, with the poet challenging these distinctions, it becomes clear why making an album like this was important. Despite remaining vital, reggae, where I live at least, is no longer the sound of Britain’s streets and clubs, and given that so much of Zephaniah’s poetry relates back to the streets that bore it, the hip-hop feel of Naked makes sense.
As for the poems here, they are for the most part a storm of wounded but defiant laments coloured by Zephaniah’s vibrant, eloquent language. On the page, (this album comes with a 16-page book setting the poems to the art of infamous street artist Banksy), the words are loaded with crackling energy, but it’s when they are performed that they really spark into life. Neither a rapper nor a reggae vocalist, but a poet, there remains nothing quite like Zephaniah in full flow. On “Rong Radio Station”, his tirade against the spin and the lies that have filtered into every aspect of life in his Britain, he booms the lines “I was beginning to believe that all black men were bad men” and “I think I can bomb my way to peace”, and it’s a hammering wake up call to a comatose society. Indeed, Naked is characterized by the poet’s constant desire to talk about the subjects absent from the charts, be it in the slightly clunky call for respect of “Responsible”, or the slyly comic tale of celebrity excess and woe of “Superstar”—the latter delivered in a broad, cutting Birmingham accent.
Only the second track here—but undoubtedly the centrepiece—“Naked” is a searing poem where the music is totally dominated by Zephaniah’s wounded, driving howl.
“This is me fatherless, childless, /
Who do I go to and what for, /
Who should I cry to, who should I cry for, /
I need babies to recite to, /
I need babies to recite to me, /
My life is full of lonely childless eternity, /
Where only poetry gives me life, /
And nakedness gives me knowledge”.
The delivery is breathless and wired and unequivocally brilliant.
Naked, then, is a flawed album. At times you long for the music to shatter into shards, to bear down your neck and get right in your face. Certainly there would be little lost from “Homesick” by taking away the unremarkable beats and leaving Zephaniah’s words, about an abused black prisoner, out up front and on their own. But there is a power to Zephaniah’s universal poetry, a power in lines like “I see me coming to an end, / Another nigger far from home” that transcends the music, and this is ultimately what makes even these moments on Naked sound essential. Fuck The Sun; this is an album by a poet still raging, still hurting and still with something to say.