As the follow-up to last year’s successful compilation of the UK rap subset called grime, Run the Road Volume 2 necessarily lacks the spark of the new that illuminated its predecessor. Again, unlike its prequel, this second platter of the supposed cream of the grime crop, doesn’t offer a glimpse of a world we hadn’t seen before, nor does it gives the listener the pleasure of hearing underground stars like Dizzee Rascal, Lady Sovereign, or Mike Skinner. While it can’t be called groundbreaking, the album still has plenty going for it. It’s got the now-familiar video game bubbles and squeaks, the breakneck flow, and has enough of the feel and verve of a still-fresh genre to make for a fun, bracing listen.
MCs like Plan B, Bruza, and Kano all make return appearances, spitting barely discernable flow (at least to these Canadian ears) that cuts through their trademark pinball-crunk soundscapes. But with grime having come and gone as a fad-du-jour, the compilers made the decision to include tracks that seem to have little, if anything, to do with grime’s original aural signature. A perfect example is Plan B’s acoustic rendition of his own “Sick 2 Def”. Over a lone acoustic guitar, the young rapper tells a morbid tale of murderous fantasy, not far removed from something the Eminem of a couple years ago might have done. While the track is undeniably compelling, what it has to do with grime is beyond me. If Daddy Yankee did a solo piano version of “Gasolina” would we still call it reggaeton? I don’t know. But I do know that Crazy Titch’s “World Is Crazy” works as a less successful attempt to broaden the genre’s template. The verses are typically fast and sharp, but the Blige-ified hook feels crassly grafted on, like a halfhearted sop to American hit-making formulae.
The ramifications of the tracks that try to expand the boundaries of grime are difficult to parse. On the one hand, it’s a positive signal that the representative artists are creatively ambitious, eager to move forward artistically, and unwilling to fit within a rigid aesthetic schema. On the other hand, it’s difficult not to worry that the shape of those attempts (unplugging? Diva wailing?) signal a move towards mainstream — that is, saleable — standards. That kind of move wouldn’t be a long-distance one -– Mizz Beats’s “Saw It Comin’” and Low Deep’s “Get Set” wouldn’t sound terribly foreign to anyone who’s heard Lil’ Jon — but it would be terrible to think that a scant 10 months after the first Run the Road was released, grime is already making a move towards radio-friendly-unit-shifting. Hey, it could be that I’ve been reading too much Frankfurt school philosophy lately, but it feels like grime is providing an interesting case study in how a new, strange, exciting form of cultural expression undergoes the process of being rendered into mere product. It’s hard not to be a little disappointed when the first lines of Bear Man’s “This is the Remix” are “Yo! What the fuck? This is remix!” Sorry, but that kind of meta-boasting has been hopelessly passé for so long that it’s vaguely depressing to hear it burst forth from the one’s and zero’s of such a young genre’s supposedly representative album.
With entire catalogues (forget albums) available at the click of a button, and the hype machine calibrated to eat its young at an alarming rate, it’s difficult for anything innovative to maintain a feeling of transgression and discovery for much longer than the blink of an eye. Grime is no exception. The solution is to try and suppress any expectations of finding new land — instead, just listen. With that humble modus operandi in effect, Run the Road Volume Two works as a fun soundtrack to a dimly-lit, vodka and Red Bull drenched basement party. But if you really want to kick the party into gear, the album’s older brother is still the one to podcast.