The sophomore album is always a fascinating one, but especially when the artist’s debut release is one of the most highly praised albums of the decade. After cramming in a lifetime’s amount of work and ambition into a single record, the next one becomes totally different; the pressure to build on the early success is extremely high, songs have to be composed while on the road, instead of at home, and with all the demands that come with stardom, chances to steal away to work alone are harder to come by. It’s especially difficult when your songs are autobiographical, as is often the case in hip-hop. Instead of writing songs about trying to get out of the neighborhood he grew up in, the artist, now much more worldly than before, has to find new things to write about, and when you become famous, that usually boils down to a couple of themes, which have been written about ad nauseam already: being famous, and how much it sucks (or rules) to be famous. Some artists, such as Jay-Z and Eminem, have excelled at that kind of songwriting, but in the case of Dizzee Rascal, he’s well aware that he’s going to have to do something different on his second album to set himself apart.
How the hell do you follow up an album as incendiary, as groundbreaking, as influential as Boy in da Corner? In the past 14 months, Dizzee Rascal, AKA Dylan Mills, turned UK hip-hop and British pop music completely on its ear thanks to his grimy, UK garage debut, garnering heaps of praise worldwide, huge sales in his homeland, and if that weren’t enough, winning the prestigious Mercury Prize. Most importantly, though, it was Bow native Dizzee, as well as his former Roll Deep cohort Wiley, who introduced London’s East End garage scene to the rest of the world, which, in the past year, has proven to be the source of easily the most thrilling new music in the UK today. To his credit, Dizzee headed straight back into the studio, a rare thing these days, and just over a year since the release of Boy in da Corner, and even more overwhelming to American fans, a mere eight months after its US release, we have the brashly titled Showtime, and it not only proves to be a very worthy follow-up, but it also hammers home, with a piledriver’s force, just how gifted this young man is.
Many eyebrows were raised when, earlier this year, Dizzee hinted that he’d like to work with an American producer such as Kanye West, but those fears expressed by fans have been allayed, as his album is another self-produced effort. Musically, Showtime continues where Boy in da Corner left off, delivering more of those hyperkinetic, stuttering garage beats, but instead of Boy‘s raw, minimal arrangement, the sound on Showtime is much more dense, not to mention varied. You hear touches of dancehall used this time around, as well as African percussion, glitch pop, ‘80s electro, and Far Eastern influences. The most notable difference on the new album is the presence of more melodic flourishes accompanying the beats, something you hear instantly on the phenomenal first single “Stand Up Tall”. Over a fairly straightforward, fast beat, Dizzee uses a simple, three-note synth hook that sounds lifted straight from an Atari 2600 console, which, during the verses, becomes a frenetic, two-note bassline that punctuates Dizzee’s distinctive vocal cadence. Then, when the chorus comes along, he injects a second fantastic synth hook, the melodic keyboard stabs offsetting the song’s gritty, urgent sound perfectly.
It’s Mills’s lyrical talents, however, that come to the forefront on this album. Gone are the sublime character studies of “Jezebel” and “I Luv U”; in their place, Dizzee muses about the price of fame, and whether or not he can remain genuine as his wealth increases, his anger and intensity offset by some genuine humility and sly humor. While Showtime may not be as lyrically intense as the last album, it does have its share of moments, best exemplified by the scorching trifecta of “Hype Talk”, “Face”, and “Respect Me”. Over a hard, glitch style laptop beat, “Hype Talk” has Dizzee referring to himself in the third person, chronicling the rumors that surrounded him in 2003, lambasting the media’s speculation surrounding his stabbing last summer: “Did he really slap her/ Is it true that Wiley skipped the country, left him/ Did he punch Mega in the face, try to test him?” On the ominous, rumbling “Face”, he chronicles the rivalries among his London peers, only to end the song with an hilarious coda, featuring two young ladies who question Dizzee’s legitimacy, opting to listen to listen to Jay-Z instead. It all comes to a head on “Respect Me”, as Dizzee expresses his frustration with his detractors (“So many claims and no evidence”), sneering like erstwhile trip-hop star Tricky, “You people are gonna respect me if it kills you.”
After Showtime‘s somewhat grim first half, the album really picks up steam, and it’s on the last third where Dizzee pulls out all the stops, creating the finest music of his young career. Already a master at transforming a cheesy, early ‘80s song into the basis for a brilliant hip-hop track (as he proved on “Fix Up, Look Sharp”), on the remarkable “Dream”, he takes “Happy Talk”, the wonderfully goofy 1982 Rodgers & Hammerstein cover by former Damned guitarist Captain Sensible, and uses it as the primary hook in his own tale of the making of Boy in da Corner. “The more challenging it got the more I fought it,” he says, adding charmingly, “Made an album, over 100,000 people bought it… thank you.” On the other side of the coin is the deliciously lecherous “Girls”, where Dizzee and guest Marga Man, who sounds like a British, caffeinated Bootsy Collins (“It’s amayzing!”), leer at the ladies, declaring, “Sex? We don’t settle for less.”
The album climaxes with two sublime tracks, “Imagine”, and “Fickle”, where Dizzee takes a few steps back, and assesses his life thusfar. Over “Imagine”‘s layers of gentle, lilting synth harmonies, he questions aloud if his life would have been different if he grew up in the country instead of a council estate, and wonders whether he’ll be better off living away from all the crime in the city, asking the listener, “Imagine if I showed you one day I was leaving the hood/ Would you call me a sellout? Would you say it’s all good?” The dramatic “Fickle” boasts Dizzee’s best studio work yet, with its distinctive, tense keyboard melody and uncharacteristically busy, Kanye-style production, and lyrically, the man is unapologetic about his bluntness, both as an artist and as a person, declaring, “If I can’t find my around/ I’ll find a way across/ And if I can’t find my across/ I’ll bore straight through.”
“I’m from the LDN, no forgettin’ that, and the big UK I stay reppin’ that,” says Dizzee at one point on Showtime. Fiercely true to his roots, he makes it clear through the entire album that commercial success will not change his artistic mission one lick. Aside from a couple of hiccups (the clunky R&B of “Get By”, the silly call and response of “Knock Knock”), it’s every bit as good as Boy in da Corner, and sometimes even better. He comes off as brash, often hilariously so (“I ain’t mad/ I’m a lovely lad/ I’ll give you the loveliest beatin’ that you ever had”), but underneath all the bravado is a contemplative side to Dizzee Rascal that remains his greatest asset. “To the years where a teacher couldn’t teach/ Think back to the days when I couldn’t be told,” he says, looking back. “Now just a few years and I feel lost/ Tryin’ to live the high life, but at what cost?”