Watered-down grime-for-beginners that fails to capture the spark of Kano's Home Sweet Home, but still with enough radio-ready hits and grime bangers to chalk up another worthy entry in the growing catalogue of essential Brit-hop.
Before we get any further, here's the verdict on East London self-styled 'entourage' Roll Deep's debut album, In at the Deep End: watered-down grime-for-beginners that fails to capture the spark of Kano's Home Sweet Home, but still with enough radio-ready hits and grime bangers to chalk up another worthy entry in the growing catalogue of essential Brit-hop.
Led by producer and MC Richard Cowie (aka Wiley), Roll Deep has 13 members with names like Jet Le, Flow Dan and Taliban Trim. The group has its own DJs and accomplished producers (Weed, Target and Wiley), and many of the members come with impressive individual resumes: famously, grime's superstar Dizzee Rascal was once part of the crew; Kano, too, is pursuing a solo career (as well he should, what with Home Sweet Home and all) post-RD. And take a look at Wiley's under-appreciated solo debut, Treddin' on Thin Ice; and the depth of talent scrambling up after Dizzee's coat-tails becomes dizzyingly clear.
The group has history, too: a couple hard-hitting mixtapes (2003's Creeper Mixtape Vol. 1, 2004's Rollin' Deeper), and a totally random CD/DVD documentary Aim High. Now, if you're expecting that kind of street-level, tough-as-nails grime from In at the Deep End, though, rewind/restart/reload it.
On In at the Deep End something else entirely is going on. Wiley stated it pretty clearly in an interview in the British press, saying: "We couldn't get a deal originally, so I spent £30,000 on studio time to make a record that would please people who weren't ready for grime." And there you have it: In at the Deep End is Roll Deep's answer to people who 'aren't ready for grime'. Instead, they turn to American R&B to provide an easy touchstone for a British commercial audience: familiar rap sounds combined with grime MCs' characteristic hunger. So we get samples (Evelyn King in "Flying Away"); familiar soft-synth/female vocal melodies ("Bus Stop"); or the slightly stale sped-up lick ("Good Girl"). Here, less so than on Kano's debut, name-checking Kanye West (lyrically on "Show You", musically on "Good Girl") falls relatively flat: group aesthetic rather than lone young buck, Roll Deep's experimentation is more incremental, less paradigm-shifting.
I can't speak for British readers, but I have a sneaky feeling at-first super-catchy singles "The Avenue" and "Shake a Leg" may have aged pretty fast. Nice summer radio pop hits, no doubt, and to a naïve reviewer like me sitting in NYC, right now addictive: but hearing '80s cheese sample Maisonettes' "Heartache Avenue" to saturation on BBC1, or the smart-boys quoting/re-quoting -- "I get randy / D'you know what'd be handy? / A little glass of brandy" -- could easily kill these tunes. And I hate to do this, but doesn't salsa-quoting "Shake a Leg" sort of remind you of "Mambo No. 5"?
Ironically, the highlights of In at the Deep End come when Roll Deep's producers forget for a second all the R&B, mass-market-friendly, disposable keyboard melodies and allow grime's seams to show. On "Let It Out", a low keyboard jabs with Wiley's characteristic bass-heavy 'Eski' sound. And never has an accordion sounded so menacing as on "When I'm 'Ere", the album's first single, with its with its simple, creeping bass, exploding percussion and over-the-top vibrato trill. A guest spot by Dizzee Rascal doesn't hurt the track's legitimacy, either.
In the end, Roll Deep has made a summer pop record that achieves what it sets out to do: "I want it to be chart music. I want to make a grime beat, get a singer to do her thing, and then chart it" -- more clarity from Wiley. Most of In at the Deep End is just that, meticulously constructed pop-rap with accented, interesting 16-bar rotating MC sound-bytes; the shame is that it's obvious Roll Deep are capable of much more. Here's hoping Roll Deep apprehends, here on out, we are ready for an edgier, harder grime sound.