A portrait of the artist as a young workaholic, and you can dance to it.
First name’s Richard and his middle name’s Kylea, but everyone knows him as Wiley, the UK producer and rapper who’s unusually busy, even by hip-hop’s pro-hustling standards. Last year saw multiple mixtapes and two official albums, one of them released on Wiley’s own label. Now he’s back with the double album Evolve or be Extinct, basically a tribute to his workaholism. "This is just an album," Wiley raps, "that I made / On to the next one, keepin’ the pace / Ain’t nobody gonna do your work for you." True to his word, Wiley produces 14 of these 22 tracks himself. That’s down from the 100% of tracks he produced for his 2011 album 100% Publishing, but cut the guy some slack -- I don’t think he sleeps.
Instead he makes beats -- hard beats, disco beats, herky jerky spazzy beats, beats that are spacey and weird -- and raps over them in ways that are indelible and musically adventurous. After the so-so introduction "Welcome to Zion", Evolve slams into your brain with its title song, a boxing match between track and rapper. Wiley’s track mainly consists of a double-time riff repeated over and over, while his flow is a hyperactive syncopated wonder that darts in and out of the spaces in the production, elaborating and playing off its rhythmic possibilities. A hypeman declares, "If you’re not spittin’ this way on the 140 bpm, you are not evolving, rudeboy," and you don’t doubt him.
Wiley also purchases beats from others, a successful strategy because their stuff is frequently amazing. The beat for "Link Up", by name-to-remember Nana Rogues, is mostly implied, with a huge snare on the fours, a shaker and chime twinkling unpredictably, and a bass vroom that swells and throbs the rhythms of seduction. "Link Up" also provides the album’s most irresistible hook, "Hey sexy gal, how you doin’ / I been hearin’ you speak my language fluent". Given Wiley’s sometimes inscrutable grime-meets-dancehall rapping, that’s a major point in her favor. Also great is Most Wanted Mega’s mega electro racecar roar "Boom Blast", which makes Wiley’s heart stutter like "voodoodoodoo dadadada voodoodoodoo POW!" At several points during the song, he touches the ceiling. Prolific veteran Mark Pritchard contributes two gems: the profound bass wobble of "Scar" and the strutting "Money Man", with computerized bomb sounds backing up its lyrical bombs -- "I seen war like a Viking / Got a temper but my name ain’t Tinie."
Wiley himself puts up a solid, if less consistent, array of beats. The album loses some steam midway through. "Miss You" sounds like Wiley looped the drum intro from an old soul song ("Best of My Love"?), a good idea that yields a thin and aggravating track. And the skit-into-song "Customs/Immigration" is Evolve’s weakest moment, a one-note rant on getting held up in the customs line. Whether "Immigration" concerns racial profiling or not -- Wiley’s verses don’t really go there -- it’s hard to sympathize when Wiley reveals in "Customs" that he’s jetting off to Barbados. "If you see Rihanna, tell ‘er I said hi,” says the exceedingly polite customs officer after he’s informed Wiley, "OK Mate, ummm, what’s happened is, you are 69.7% THC level." That’s high, right? Still, anyone who can create the dancehall banger "Fire", the drinking cheer "Daiquiris", and the lush escapist dream "Life at Sea" is working at the top of his game. As a varied production showcase, Evolve impresses like DJ Quik’s The Book of David and Damian Marley’s Distant Relatives.
As much as Wiley talks about vacations, you wonder if he really takes them. Throughout Evolve, he comes across as driven and self-centered. Not that he’s cruel, he’d just rather be working and he probably brings his smart phone to the dinner table. He certainly has trouble socializing. "Cheer up, it’s Christmas" is one of the most churlish Christmas songs ever, opening with the lines, "I never liked Christmas much / I always tried to avoid it." Turns out Wiley would rather be up in his room making beats, and though he enjoys his auntie’s food and wine, he feels antsy and restless: "Even though I wanna leave, I gotta spend time." The production, full of Jay Weathers’s urgent percussion and forlorn strings, sympathizes.
In the sparse meditation "This is Just an Album", Wiley reveals that he maintains his breakneck schedule to connect with the public and provide for his family. But his big dance song, "I’m Skanking", is all about dancing alone. The atonal loner anthem "Weirdo" asserts "You ain’t in the same planet as me / They ain’t in the same planet as me". And in "No Love Lost", Wiley acknowledges that he’s lost touch with many homies: "We started together / Now we move solo," an appropriate motto for a guy who apparently vacations in Barbados by himself. Blame his fans, who double as his enablers: "People ask me every day, ‘Wiley, what you workin’ on?’" No wonder he wants to see what the sea’s like.
Still, this guy’s so good at his job, it’s hard to imagine him lazing on a beach somewhere, with or without Rihanna. Evolve or be Extinct succeeds as both a collection of songs for public use -- dancing, drinking, celebrating Christmas, protesting customs officials -- and as a complex portrait of the artist who’s sacrificed his sleep and sanity to create them.