Could it be that that British hip-hop has finally come of age? The past couple of years have seen our friends across the pond shed their Garanimals and get over the anxiety of influence that comes from working in a genre that was born and bred in America’s urban decay and milk fed it’s best and worst cultural fixations. Not that the entire world hasn’t embraced hip-hop, but us Yanks measure those foreigners by their ability to make some noise on the charts here. When Mike Skinner dropped his debut, the Brits finally seemed to have caught on. The Streets’ Original Pirate Material resembled nothing produced on these shores and yet had absolutely everything that makes hip-hop so compelling for disaffected youths banging on the bars of adolescence. Skinner made unabashedly parochial music is some respects, right down to the flex and swagger of his homegrown slang lifted from a roguish world of clubbing, drugging, and PlayStation. Then there was his flow, an anti-rhythmic, stumbled cadence drowning in a slurry accent, an in-your-face refusal to ape any of the American rap Saints. The follow-up breakthrough of Dizzee Rascal carved the path wider, making room for an MC who rhymed like skidding tires over beats of screeching cacophony. Together they heralded a new wave of British hip-hop not slavishly shadowing their American brethren.
In the evolution of British hip-hop, Ty is two steps forward and three steps back. (Hopefully, that sentence didn’t make a really bad Paula Abdul track start looping in your head.) On the one hand, he’s clearly working from the UK canon, particularly Roots Manuva, and taking his time doing so with a flow that sounds blissfully anesthetized. But there are more than a few missteps and songs which plod, drift, or mine lyrical domains that sound like Barry White reading headline news on CNN, a prospect that all the lovers of the world should find unsettling.
Upwards certainly puts its best foot forward. “Ha Ha” has a lazily wide stride of a beat that plateaus on keyboards that could be a kazoo quartet. It’s also the best display of Ty’s hilariously lobbed rhythm which sounds like a stoned slinky missing every other stair. Upwards seems to have front loaded all the gems, before it gets swamped in open-mic rough drafts. “Wait a Minute” rapidly skips across a funk-flicked guitar riff and lyrics revealing the scorned man half a bad relationship argument. The best tracks on this album eschew the breathy male R&B choruses and instead use hooks that hit a faster clip. “Oh You Want More?” scores in my book for being the best use of circus music I’ve ever heart in hip-hop coupled with Ty picking up his scuffled flow to a pace that sounds positively explosive compared to the rest of the album. I don’t want to undervalue the bright spots of Upwards because, while they’re not as frequent as I might like, they’re certainly have enough heft to hold their own against any given new American hip-hop release that is far more likely to be unbridled shit from start to finish.
For every track that licks your ear and does the splits, there are a sloppy handful of desiccated hobblers. “Rain” fits snugly into the maudlin, tear jerking tradition of hip-hop served up with a slice of simpering cheese. With a Boyz II Men chorus and lyrics that traverse everything from the number of Ty’s ho’s to the unfortunate availability of guns in his neighborhood, it’s a by-the-numbers slab of remedial social commentary. There’s something sort of slapdash and rote to this song, a patina of “this one’s for the ladies” that conjures up images of mood lighting and rose petals dumped on the bed for the video shoot. It’s an unfortunate pattern that perpetually clotheslines Ty’s every effort at sincerity. “Dreams” addresses the conflict between what people want out of life and how their environments constrain their aspirations. Sadly, the music kills any desire you might have to sift through sentiment with its swinger’s party flaccid jazz and chorus harmonies (you guessed it: the title word repeated until your temples cave) so thin that they only serve to neon the track’s general flatness.
“Music 2 Fly 2” by far sets a new standard for good intentions gone wrong. Thirteen minutes?! Well, technically it’s just six minutes or so with a break followed up an equally bad hidden track, but either way, it’s squandering bloat dissipated my desire to cut him a smidge of slack for having something to say but flunking in execution. Baffling for just about any song, this track takes a muzak background from Shaft and allows Ty a free-range reign that’s punishingly cliché, To pull this off you’d need mad lyrical prowess and a flow that tickles rather than lingers like a dead tongue on your thigh. “In the inner city/ People are busy being into what they’re into” says Ty and I have to wonder how that passes for something interesting to say about anyone. I’m into what I’m into, does that mean I’m deeply in touch with my inner “inner city”. This is the kind of abstraction that suffocates many a good statement, by draining it of specificity and believing that you can change people’s hearts and minds with platitudes that hit life like a dragonfly on a monster truck grill.
Ty needs a DJ and Ty needs a crash course in the school of hard beats. It also wouldn’t hurt to ease up on the bad orchestral soul music which has a tendency to cede all ground to the background, leaving tracks with no bite to their rhythm. But for all his ear-scarring missteps there’s that golden sliver of a remainder that telegraphs a bit of funk to your ass and makes this album not just a written-off debt to better American peers. Not every UK hopeful has to raise the bar and there’s worse things than a record that does little more than maintain a spotty, middling coast through sedated flows and flimsy backdrops.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
// Notes from the Road
"Saul Williams played a free, powerful Summerstage show ahead of his appearance at Afropunk this weekend.READ the article