So what we’ve got here is 10 noisy Brit-rap songs, four electro-experimental “skits”, and eight remixes, all of which somehow yields four versions of “All of You”, Riz MC’s worst song and maybe not coincidentally his sex song. Not that sex raps are necessarily bad — Florida’s Trina and White Dawg have clearly proven as much. But when Riz turns to love, he sounds like he’s reading from the Harlequin Historical series. He tells his lady he wants to “be the first to get a taste of your creamy truth”, which is just not something you say in public. And then there’s this: “Now I’m diggin’ in your trenches, bending you / And you’re No Man’s Land, wanna enter you.” I defer to Babette Gladney from Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise: “I don’t care what these people do as long as they don’t enter or get entered.”
Riz seems better suited to the social observations and political screeds of the other nine songs on MICroscope, his debut. After the short “Sonic Warfare” opens the album by drawing us into a nightmarish world of everyday sonic overload — it’s very Pink Floyd — we get “Radar” and “People Like People”, both sides of Riz’s 2008 single produced by the future-hugging Lazersonic. The beats sound really good — deep bass shudders, sproingy kick drums, a giant snare backbeat in “People”, and transient random-noise bursts with the MC’s announcements. Lazersonic sometimes slips into hackneyed social alienation stuff — “the world is a noisy scary place, so that’s what music should sound like,” he seems to say — but he brings plenty of momentum and cool effects, so the beats actually sell you on the alienation.
Same with the affable MC who, going under his real name Riz Ahmed, is a well-known London actor from the dark Jihad comedy Four Lions and Michael Winterbottom’s drama Trishna. Riz sees much with his actor’s eye, and he turns his portraits of other people around on himself. “Radar” is all about judging people by appearances — “I can’t turn my radar off / Anyone, anything, I’mma put it in a box” — and Riz makes those judgments feel inescapable, suffocating, especially when it means judging himself and presenting himself the same way. The flipside, “People”, takes up its key hypothesis — “People like people who don’t give a @!$%” (where “@!$%” equals “ELECTRONIC BLURP”) — and runs with it, although the details sometimes contradict Riz’s thesis. If all these people don’t give a @!$%, why do they spend so much energy hearing the right tunes, buying the right clothes, and revising the reviews? They DO care, but that’s the point — Riz the narrator and his radar have confused people’s sociopathic fronts with their insecure innards. Again, Riz flips the observation around and contemplates not caring himself. “Not sure / But maybe they’ll like me more” — and so goes the endless chain of fronting.
The rest of the 10-song album, released digitally last year, is just as sonically arresting. The beats by Lazersonic and Redinho churn and pop, squeal and squirm, and Riz tries to take the edge off by cracking jokes. Sometimes those jokes are terrible. He coins the word “trashionable” for the gentrification anthem “All in the Ghetto”; a bemused look at the economic crisis climaxes with the line, “You take the piss, I’ll chop off your schlong.” But that just means he’ll try anything for a laugh, a quality as endearing as it is annoying. And anyway, Riz knows what he’s doing on the mic. A virtuoso who leavens his virtuosity with ear-grabbing syncopation and hooks, he’s not afraid to let his flow breathe.
The original album closed with “Sour Times”, a convincing look at the economic factors driving young Muslims to Jihad. (Riz is British-Pakistani, from a Muslim family.) Its words are better than its music — slow, beatless, and ruminative, it’s a self-serious dramatic monologue. But it’s certainly more interesting than the new remixes that end the album. Besides the endless takes on “All of You”, we get a dubbed-out “Radar”, a house version on “Hundereds & Thousands”, and a dubsteppy “Dark Hearts” with gun sounds for beats. Riz’s originals flip around in all sorts of directions; processing their beats feels like trying to hold freshly caught fish. The remixes just tend to pick one thing and do it over and over for five minutes. The winning exception is True Tiger’s huge and heartrending remix of “Get On It”. In what may be dubstep’s New Romantic moment, it’ll make you grab whatever light source is handy and wave it in the air. It has little to do with the rest of MICroscope, but one taste of its creamy truth won’t be enough.