In 1997 Roni Size / Reprazent released what can arguably be considered the greatest drum & bass album of all time: New Forms. Melding jazz and R&B to the previously forbidding D&B template, New Forms’ jazz-infused and highly cosmopolitan sound heralded a possible future where drum & bass was the definitive sound of the inner-city, as well as the most vital genre in the burgeoning electronic music scene.
New Forms won the 1997 Mercury Prize in Britain, but in hindsight, if that award was going to go to an electronic music album of historic import (as opposed to, say, OK Computer) the award should probably have been given to the Chemical Brothers for Dig Your Own Hole. Drum & bass began to self-destruct soon after the release of New Forms. Goldie released the disastrous Saturnz Return just a few months after New Forms in 1998, and almost every critic who had previously hailed D&B as the next big thing—the proverbial “new jazz” - recoiled in horror from the criminally self-indulgent hour-long “Mother”. It is obvious in retrospect that the great promise of drum & bass was largely chimerical, and that while there is a lot of great drum & bass music out there, it was never going to conquer the universe. Dig Your Own Hole, on the other hand, sounds better with every passing year, as the initial backlash against “electronica” fades into memory and the Chems distinctive mixture of deceptively populist but dizzyingly intelligent electronic pop begins to sound more and more like the real future of music. (But then, there is an entire school of thought that holds that the Mercury Prize is actually a curse, based on the subsequent careers of once-heralded artists such as Talvin Singh, the M People, Gomez and Ms. Dynamite after winning the prestigious award.)
Roni Size and Reprazent released In the Mode, their follow-up to New Forms, in 2000. Gone were the sublimely smooth jazz elements which had made that earlier album so endlessly engrossing, replaced by a renewed fascination with American hip-hop. The three years between albums had seen the British public and critical establishment reject drum & bass, and the genre had retreated into the underground where the had grown progressively harder and less forgiving. The pop elements were expunged, but at the same time In the Mode showed the genre offering a plea to hip-hop for continued relevancy. The fact that there has yet to be a single successful American hip-hop single at drum & bass tempo should tell you how lucrative that particular attempt at cross-pollination turned out to be.
So now it’s 2004 and Roni Size has released Return to V, his second solo album following 2002’s Touching Down. That album showcased a renewed commitment to the darker club sounds of the D&B underground, while this album is a moderate swing back towards the genre-stretching material that made his name. Although the jazz of New Forms is still gone, the hip-hop of In the Mode has definitely returned, and brought with it the sultry R&B more usually associated with UK Garage/2-Step.
(UK Garage/2-Step is a poppy offshoot of D&B that failed to have any impact whatsoever on the American scene despite the persistent excellence of artists such as MJ Cole and the Stanton Warriors. Ironically, a 2-Step/hip-hop hybrid colloquially called “grime” seems to be having some success over here, based on the critical stature of artists such as Dizzee Rascal, Wiley and even the Streets [not exactly grime, but not exactly 2-step, either]. This is ironic because the dense, artificial beats associated with grime are more similar to traditional D&B than most 2-step. If only these guys had been around four years ago… but I digress.)
It’s almost as if Roni Size can feel High Contrast’s hot breath on the back of his neck. On Return to V (whose title denotes a return to the hardcore sounds of Size’s old label, V Records), he’s trying to simultaneously stretch and stay true to his roots. It’s a hard balancing act to pull off, and he’s only partially successful. There are some hardcore club bangers like “Fassyhole” and “Groove On” side-by-side with hip-hop crossovers like “Time” (featuring UK rapper Darrison) and R&B numbers like “Problems” (featuring British R&B singer Blaze—not to be confused with either the American house duo or the black-metal crooner).
Speeding down his breakbeats to a more commercial hip-hop tempo is one of the most radical things Roni Size could possibly do. I’ve long maintained that drum & bass is inherently limited on account of the frenetic breakbeats that form the genre’s foundation. But if you take the fast tempo away, what you have isn’t drum & bass anymore. The genre’s distinctive element is limiting, but it is also defining. It is perfectly conceivable that this could be just the first step away from the drum & bass genre that Size helped define, but I don’t think that’s on his agenda so much as merely stretching his muscles into unfamiliar territory. However, if the hard-hitting “Time” is any indication, he could probably make a good living as a stunt producer for the hip-hop nation.
The album definitely comes together in the second half, with the sultry “Want Your Body” and the hard, soulful “No Trouble” proving conclusively that there is still some juice in the old car after all. If there was any doubt that Size could still keep up with those whippersnappers over on the Breakbeat Science label, these tracks, along with the punishing “On and On” and the techno-influenced “The Streets”, should prove that Size is still capable of leading the pack. The album-closing “Give Me a Reason” even samples some of grime’s most distinctive sounds, welded to a shit-hot breakbeat and laid under a smooth ragga vocal courtesy of MC Navigator.
After Touching Down, I was prepared to write off Roni Size. That disc just did nothing for me. Return to V may not be anywhere near as good as New Forms, but the thought arises that perhaps we should stop comparing every subsequent album with his unquestioned masterpiece. It’s just unfair. Imagine if you held every new Oasis album to the standard of Definitely, Maybe... oh, wait, they’d still suck. Regardless, this is a good album, a good album from a producer who may, for once, be quite satisfied in the act of merely being good.