Scene of the Grime
The very fact that Maths + English is being reviewed at all is something of a miracle.
Afterall, Dizzee was the grime-affected muscle-mouthed teen that always seemed to wind up playing 50 Cent to Mike Skinner’s Eminem here in the States. When Boy in Da Corner dropped in 2003, riding waves of buzz and hype prior to its release, the just-christened blogosphere wound up championing him as the next big thing in rap music; after all, Dizzee didn’t as much spit his rhymes as he did chew and mash them up in his thick accent, all over his PlayStation-happy digibeats (though contrary to popular belief, he didn’t actually record his debut on a PlayStation). Boy went on to claim the Mercury Music Prize in the UK while shifting some 60,000-plus copies here in America. Though the success was modest, it was still huge for a UK rap artist, and barely eight months had passed before he suddenly dropped his second album, the more pop-oriented Showtime. Its sudden, inexplicable arrival wound up doing more harm than good to Dizzee’s just-started career.
When the Beatles were in their prime, they could release albums no less than a few months apart from each other, much to the glee of critics and fans alike. In modern times, however, having a follow-up album appear in the course of just one year is considered quick, perhaps even too quick. With Showtime‘s sudden appearance, America was left dumbfounded: many were still fawning over Boy in Da Corner and most were picking it up for the first time. Sales of Showtime fizzled in the U.S. (it was still a hit in his homeland), leading XL/Beggars to make the surprise decision to release Dizzee’s 2007 effort Maths + English through digital outlets only (it would still get a physical release in Europe). Showtime‘s U.S. sales weren’t the only thing that disappointed: despite its good-natured theme and message, UK pirate radio DJs endlessly heckled Dizzee for his optimistic single “Dream” (his biggest hit at the time), calling him a lightweight while also damaging his ever-valuable street cred. When LL Cool J was accused of selling out with his 1987 radio-friendly single “I Need Love”, he responded with one of the hardest tracks to ever brought to mainstream rap at the time: the furious 1991 anthem “Mama Said Knock You Out”. When Dizzee was accused of the same, he came back with a little song called “Sirens” …
Indeed, something was different about Maths + English from the get-go: Dizzee was pissed. “Sirens”—with its gritty street lyricism and monstrously heavy rock guitars—was unlike anything Dizzee had ever spit over and is arguably the best single he has ever put out. During his year-long singles binge in the UK, former Company Flow maestro El-P must have taken notice, as us Yanks now have a physical copy of Maths + English via his Definitive Jux record label. So what’s different about the U.S. edition of Maths + English? Sadly, not that much. First off, the new re-jiggered tracklist completely omits the “It Takes Two”-sampling dis track “Pussy’ole”, another blazing triumph that served as Maths’ lead single across the pond. In its place, we get two meager hood tracks (“G.H.E.T.T.O.” and “Driving With No Where to Go”) and a bizarre, off-kilter El-P remix of “Where’s Da G’s” that completely changes the tone of the UGK-featuring original (for better or worse? Jury’s still out on that one.). Even with these changes, though, Maths + English remains a stellar, exciting rap disc, doubling as both Dizzee’s grittiest album as well as his most accessible.
Though “Where’s Da G’s” remains a stinging indictment of rap poseurs, the rest of the album features Dizzee either re-affirming his street loyalty or taking comic, self-deprecating detours. The latter is best exemplified by the extraordinary “Wanna Be”, in which Lily Allen stops by to call out poseurs (again), claiming that said fakirs have their bling purchased by their mom, all while Dizzee manages to turn a slew of groupies into Rascal-haters with only a few careless words (somewhat recalling the wit of Streets’ “Get Out of My House” or even Dizzee’s own “I Luv U”). The sexual-prowess anthem “Flex” runs in the same great club-ready echelon that tracks like “Stand Up Tall” had only hinted at, the minimal “Excuse Me Please” flirts with a political agenda but winds up reigning back in order for Dizzee to spin yarns about his own journey of self-discovery, and even the prerequisite Alex Turner (Arctic Monkeys) cameo winds up being surprisingly effective (the very Arctic-like “Temptation”). Maths + English is unabashedly British, but with its dirty beats and street-level lyrical stances, never has Dizzee been so relatable to an American audience.
As enjoyable as it is, though, Maths isn’t a full-out masterpiece, particularly with some of the more uninspired productions (“Da Feelin’”, the record-industry lament “Hard Back (Industry)”) weighing down the album’s second half, but all in all, little has changed in the nearly year-long journey that it took for Maths + English to get a physical release here in the States. When PopMatters first reviewed the disc back in ‘07, it received an 8/10 score. With a year’s age to its name and its level of excitement remaining exactly the same, I see no reason why it shouldn’t get the same well-deserved score.
// Notes from the Road
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