On his sixth solo album from Big Dada, Slime & Reason, Rodney Smith, a.k.a. Roots Manuva, Lord Gosh, and/or Hylton Smythe among other aliases, firmly points back to his Jamaican roots. Widely recognized for his critically acclaimed debut album Brand New Second Hand, which arguably pre-dated the advent of grime and other dub mutations, and also his song “Witness (1 Hope)”, which forever branded him with the rhyme “witness the fitness”, his latest effort has an overall brighter sound through pervasive reggae influences, but darkness is never far off.
The album starts with a Caribbean chorus sung in that classic indecipherable island-speak, over bright accordion-like synth production. Manuva raps, “I’m back at the drawing board / And I’m sketching out my plans with two crystal balls”, but instead of looking forward the lyrics reminisce like the music’s skanking carnival anthem.
Painting the most pastoral Jamaican scene on the record is “The Show Must Go On”. Its melody and content are the components of an archetypal Rasta ballad but tinged with electro effects and a firmer beat.
The album’s second track, “C.R.U.F.F.”, meaning “a play on ‘ruff’ meaning ‘good’”, consists of Theremin-sounding samples that wobble through notes, mimicking the pioneering electronic instruments’ phantom sonorities and preternatural sounds. Lines like “Chosen, living my life like it’s golden / I’m rolling, spinning my dice like I’m bowling”, are Biggie-esque in their syntax and snowballing rhymes. Manuva’s flow, diction and delivery have always drawn from Notorious’ lucid and weighted vocals. But in these situations Manuva also conveys his ideas with similar clarity and simplicity.
Because he’s a British rapper such moments frequently get lost in translation. Take the line “Obligatory ragamuff rag enuff manic / I’m mangling, strangling, him or her” from “C.R.U.F.F” or the track “Do Nah Bodda Mi”, whose title is more or less encrypted. During these moments the aesthetics of Manuva’s vocals are all we have to go by. Luckily his baritone is one of hip-hop’s most natural, maintaining an addictingly warm balance between bass, rhythm, accent and speed.
However, his voice is most adept at rapping, not singing—an advantage wise rappers exploit—so any attempts to sing a hook with his best R&B falsetto fall flat, and such missteps tend to stain. The Metronomy-produced “Let the Spirit” is musically the best track. Its electropop melody builds from just a faint pixilated stutter before a dub-inspired and resolute beat solidifies it and heavy arpeggiating synths make it dance floor-ready. But then background vocals enter, as layered by Manuva, and disaster ensues. It’s the same perilous move that Ja Rule commits with shameful regularity and alacrity. (Ja Rule’s singing is more severely offensive because it’s generally paired with some saccharine diva.)
Manuva repeats the singing offense on “A Man’s Talk”, “It’s Me Oh Lord”, “2 Much 2 Soon”, and many others with mixed results. “A Man’s Talk”, another solid Manuva-produced track that resonates with maturing and existential sentiment, isn’t ruined because the hook is one part chant, one part song and one part rap. On the other hand, “It’s Me Oh Lord” begins with a falsetto hook that immediately establishes the song’s underlying, but shaky, melody. The problem is that Manuva, as a singer, limits the potential of every track on which he makes this attempt. What is great about him, his facile and buoyant flow, is precisely what gets compromised because this ridiculous vocal juxtaposition is presented.
“2 Much 2 Soon” is an interesting dilemma. Though Manuva again grossly mismanages the vocal hook, the song reverberates his serious and lightly sardonic writing. He simultaneously challenges the immaterial ethos (“So if I bling yes and rightly so / Bourgeois hippies wanna fight my flow”) and cites his family’s inspiring humble origins (“I came from this I gotta do better / My pen is my sword my pen is my Beretta”). At the same time Manuva also develops a hesitancy in his delivery, waiting until the last two beats of a measure to rap, at which point he sounds like he’s freestyling or just unrehearsed. The jury is still out on which forces ultimately prevail on this track.
Manuva’s incessant background singing is regressive in a musical way, not nostalgic as the rest of the album intends to be. Perhaps inseparable from his production and writing process, its addition can detract from his most stirring quality: effortlessly smooth delivery. Except for some profound philosophical shift, poorly sung hooks are here to stay given that Manuva’s musical mantra reads, “You gotta sing like no one’s listening. You gotta fart like there’s no one there to smell it!” Well, we’re there and it stinks.