Dizzee Rascal manages to outdo himself on Maths & English, releasing one of the best and most challenging hip-hop albums in recent memory.
No one can accuse Dizzee Rascal of poor quality control. Considering the time between his albums -- Showtime is three years old by now -- he doesn't seem in a rush to put his work out. Instead, he takes his time and has made two fantastic and original albums to date. Now, he has returned with Maths & English, and while his other albums set an awfully high bar, Rascal manages to outdo himself, releasing one of the most memorable and challenging hip-hop albums in recent memory.
To call it challenging could be, in one way, misleading. Song by song Maths & English isn't really challenging at all. Some songs are funny, some more deadpan; but if you're listening for singles the greatest challenge might be the few listens it takes to totally pin down what Dizzee is saying. But when these songs start bouncing off of each other, the album takes on new meaning, crafting a picture of Dizzee Rascal as an artist, and person, often confused and worried about the world and his place in it. His emotions are all over the map on the record and what initially sounds like a disconnected, unfocused album becomes something far murkier and more honest than most hip hop fare.
There are a few times on the album where the sequencing is downright jarring. Take opener "World Outside". The song is spare and intense as Dizzee begins by saying "I got shit I want to share with you" as he launches into a confessional about his past before getting to the chorus where he says "There's a world outside of the ghetto and I want you to see it". As an album starter, it presents Dizzee Rascal as weary and concerned, seeking to lead by example but hampered by a thick layer of worry. It's a fantastic song full of honest anger and hope butting up against each other.
But then the song that follows it seems to make no sense. The crassly-titled "Pussy'ole" concerns itself, as much hip-hop does, with fakeness. It could be just another ego-driven rap song, where Dizzee claims to be realer than whoever might be listening, and since its set so early in the album, this could be an easy misinterpretation. In fact, that this song comes second might be the one of the only mistakes to be found on Maths & English. Placed later in the album, this song might reflect Dizzee's objective more clearly.
For example, in "Where da G's", in the middle of the album, Dizzee takes a shot again at fake rappers, but the motives are clear. Unlike many current day rappers, Dizzee doesn't fall into the trap of defensive posturing when he calls out poseurs. His concern is for hip-hop as a whole, and by extension his way of life. He seems to constantly seek, even when attacking others, to figure himself out. On "Paranoid", he raps about his own self-destructive thoughts, how he knows his mistrust of people around him is mostly irrational. But still, when he sings the chorus -- "They want to rinse me out, use me up, cast me down, fuck me up" -- he sings it with conviction, pulling the listener into his delusion in a very human way.
It's not that these topics have never been covered by hip-hop before, but in a genre increasingly driven by persona, Dizzee Rascal is a gritty but earnest breath of fresh air. Even when he is braggadocios -- like on "Bubbles" -- he doesn’t overdo it, and since the track isn’t cast against an album full of self-congratulatory wanking, not only does the listener not begrudge Dizzee a moment of bragging, they end up encouraging it, feeling as if its been earned.
Because, well, Dizzee Rascal has earned the right to puff his chest out a little if he wants. His flow is as varied as the beats are on Maths & English and both are as strong as they've ever been. Where a few of the beats on Showtime fell short, there isn't one here that disappoints. And Dizzee isn't afraid to have a sense of humor either. He and Lily Allen turn in a brilliant performance with "Wanna Be", a hilarious and utterly catchy track where Ms. Allen asks, "What you know about being a hard man, your mom buys your bling?" It as fun as anything the disc has to offer. But it is once again set in front of a slate serious song.
Closer "U Can’t Tell Me Nuffin'" finds Dizzee at his most angry. It is a fitting end to an album as full of frustration as it is full of hope, as tragic as it is funny, as crass and bombastic as it is intensely personal. This is an album packed with a number of equations: Dizzee Rascal as grimy rapper, as music star, as angry young man, as concerned and hopeful world citizen. That none of these "equations" supplies a full answer for itself makes the album more honest than frustrating. Dizzee seems to know enough to know he doesn't know it all.
Maths & English is sprawling and as fun to listen to as it is tricky to follow. And while this album can be appreciated on pretty much any level, shallow or deep, close listens will reveal some truly rewarding complications. While Dizzee Rascal claims, on the rabid-spit first single "Sirens", that his life "ain't nothing like Eastenders" it isn't just a funny observation of our reliance on pop culture to explain real life; it is also a call to the listener to pay attention, to break through Dizzee Rascal the music persona, and get a glimpse, however incomplete it might be, of Dizzee Rascal the man.