4everevolution is an intentionally ambiguous title, one that leaves the prospective listener with a question of authorial intent. Are the contents of the album indicative of revolution, or evolution? Are we going to be listening to an incendiary set of anthems for the uprising, or are we going to hear the next step in the formation of a multifaceted and interesting hip-hop artist?
The answer is overwhelmingly the latter, as Roots Manuva uses the opportunity of a new album to fly in directions he’s never even hinted at.
The most immediately obvious of these is the surprising, intriguing “Wha’ Mek”, on which we hear less of the character that is Roots Manuva and more of the human that is Rodney Smith. It’s an almost shockingly positive and mellow rumination on getting older, buoyed by a synth patch that’s clearly approximating steel drums and focused on a Rodney Smith crooning about being the best that he can be despite the judgmental attitudes of an unnamed “you”.
Look, you don’t typically go into a Roots Manuva album prepared for acceptance and serenity, but that’s exactly what “Wha’ Mek” offers. Once you get over the surprise, it’s a relentlessly appealing and honest effort that fits right in on an album that rarely goes out of its way to conform to listener expectations. “Wha’ Mek” is actually part of a series of songs that sacrifice the vocal acrobatics that Roots Manuva has typically offered as his trademark in favor of slower tracks that come off as beat poetry as readily as they do hip-hop. Before “Wha’ Mek” is the angry “Revelation”, a journey of self-discovery that leads to darkness rather than enlightenment. “The truth won’t always heal,” Smith sings in his hook, and honestly, thank god “Wha’ Mek” follows it, because it’s so bleak as to be off-putting. “Takes Time” follows “Wha’ Mek”, serving as the direct counterpoint to its predecessor’s warmth. It is cold, it is alien, and it is almost confrontational in its slower-than-slow tempo.
Smith does actually set his focus outside himself on occasion, often finding inspiration in his home of Great Britain — “The birthplace of the gentlemen / That ain’t gentle when / They choose to gentrify” as he describes it in highly dramatic early track “Skid Valley”. “Babylon rise and Babylon fall / Don’t know what they take us for / The more we strive they hate us more,” he raps on “The Path”, and we hear someone who, at 39 years old, feels as though he’s hitting his ceiling. Even as he rails against social injustice, he centers his focus on himself, turning everything around him into his own personal vision of self-discovery.
All of this serious introversion is tempered by a few lighter moments. The delightful “First Growth” is hilariously superficial, its production coming off as a relic of the ’80s, forcing Smith to conform to more traditional rhythmic patterns than we’re used to hearing from him. “Go Champ” is a willful walk into clichéd self aggrandizement, while “Get the Get”, which follows “Go Champ”, is an excuse for Smith to show off the rhythmic mastery that’s made him so appealing for so long.
While these lighter moments feel necessary over the course of a casual listen, one can’t help but wonder if a whole album of the doubt and discovery of self-examination would have made for a more compelling statement. By throwing a bone to the listeners hoping for a set of bangers, Smith lessens the impact of 4everevolution. It is still an evolutionary step in which he launches himself in a pile of new directions that should make for compelling future listens, and that alone makes 4everevolution worth hearing now. Hopefully, he doesn’t run out of time to make the impact he is clearly striving for.