Like Talib Kweli's Gutter Rainbows, Wiley's 100% Publishing suffers only from a sense of confounding self-consciousness. He went independent to "make the songs I like to make", and made songs nearly identical to those a label would have requested.
Grime Godfather Wiley makes a serious assertion on "Talk About Life", one of the deeper cuts from his completely independent new album, 100% Publishing: "Labels say that you can have control, but labels lie a lot."
I'll repeat that in case it slipped by you: 100% Publishing is completely independent. And Wiley wants you to know it. After some mainstream success in 2008 with the house-flavored, pop-oriented "Wearing My Rolex" and subsequent falling out with Asylum over the production on See Clear Now, Wiley retreated back to artistic independence. The results were 2009's Race Against Time and this year's 100% Publishing, both stylistic over-corrections that will further cement Wiley's place in the pantheon of UK grime gods, but not much else.
But Race Against Time wasn't saturated with David-versus-Goliath defensiveness; it was full of Wiley's lyrical bombast and brilliant production. It was Wiley putting his head down and making the music he loves, and doing it very well. 100% Publishing, with its strange focus on combating the Big Bad Wolf of the record industry, sounds like Race Against Time's entitled little brother. Wiley is setting himself at odds with a phantom which offers no tangible threat, so lines like "I know some don't care about the grime scene but I'm gonna till I die" (repeated throughout the title track), come with a faint whiff of pandering. Apparently the term 'sell out', thrown from the cheap seats after "Wearing My Rolex" hit, hurt Wiley more than he wanted to admit.
Still, 100% Publishing has plenty of highlights, beginning with the rapid fire "Information Age", which features a killer beat and some tech-chic references, and ending with "To Be Continued", a surprisingly ferocious NES-referencing promise to be back soon. Wiley has never been a great rapper, but his lyrical clunkers are easily ignored because his lyrics are secondary to his beats -- designed more to create a mood in conjunction with the beats than to stand on their own. And the beats on 100% Publishing are great. "Numbers in Action" is a head-bobbing masterpiece; "Yonge Street" marries UK club music to the Dirty South; "Boom Boom Da Na" relies on a friggin' carnival tune to set the mood -- and it works.
What sinks 100% Publishing is the flimsiness of its back story's conceit. Take "Talk About Life", on which Wiley trash talks the major label monster. With its slow, woozy synths and Anthony Hamiltonesque chorus, it sounds just as much like a pop song as "Wearing My Rolex". So why all the damn fuss? That's like Stephen King spitting in Scribner's face and going independent, only to write a lackluster horror story about an anthropomorphic murderous car.
I busted Talib Kweli on this earlier in the year; going boldly independent to make a record that sounds suspiciously like his label-affiliated albums. More than a few comparisons could be made between Wiley and Kweli, who could easily be considered the grandfather of backpack rap and whose commercial successes have met vehement resistance from the underground that gave him his career. It's partially because of that self-conscious inner conflict that Wiley's newest effort suffers -- luckily not too much, but I would love to hear what 100% Publishing would sound like coming from an artist completely oblivious to commercial label politics and public pressure. There would be a little less bitter posturing, and a lot more being Wiley.