Wiley: Treddin' on Thin Ice

Terry Sawyer


Treddin' on Thin Ice

Label: XL
US Release Date: 2004-08-24
UK Release Date: 2004-04-26

The only way to shake the collar of a trend is through the sheer power of ubiquity. Remember not too far back when "women who rock" was a cutting edge feature idea for Spin? It was a stupid angle even then, but there was a backwards sort of honesty in the fact that magazines rarely covered women who rock and therefore when they did it was typical of pop culture writing's tendency to create, discover and overlook simultaneously. Such is the lot of British hip-hop artists who have been making music for quite some time only to have the past year proclaim their existence, like some musical genre version of the calendar placemats in Chinese restaurants.

The Year of the British rapper has taught us much about the differences between "our" hip-hop and its overseas incarnations. Because the genre is a transplant to begin with, many British hip-hop artists have no anxiety about roots, no particular fealty to a genealogy of emcees that, here, is almost sacrosanct. They did, after all, give us "trip hop", a genre that sewed in string section soul, dub, lounge and turntablism all in service to the dark side of the bong. The boldest innovations in U.S. hip-hop take place in the disrespected margins of the indie world, an exiled isle nearly spat upon for not taking up the defining tropes of "realness". That says much about the conservatism of American hip-hop where up until recently white people and "cred" couldn't co-exist without someone crying foul.

It's worth it to make a skimming recap of the British hip-hop press darlings before larding Wiley with a tag and string of adjectives hopefully enticing you to get over yourself and blare this shit as loud as you can the next time you're driving through your city at night. Dizzee Rascal offered up hip-hop made up of mangled ear splitting collisions, almost explicitly against easy access, a record that you had to bite into hard to survive enjoyably. The Streets were a much easier pill to swallow, a club kid who lazily palmed out a D.I.Y. lo-fi masterpiece, the British version of Licensed to Ill (i.e. a lot smarter and less monotone). These are the iceberg tips that have made their way through by virtue of critical cross chatter, but I still can't shake the sense that it will be a long time before we see Mike Skinner dropping "bird" rhymes next to Beyonce in a wind tunnel on a video shoot. The dialogue between acclaimed by the music press and popularly loved has more chaos that people grant it. In fact calling it a dialogue ignores the fact that it's more accident than intent. This would be a far greater travesty if most of the people making it onto the pop hip hop charts actually had anything to say or anything worth listening to. If anyone in the first wave can do it, it'll be Wiley. Wiley has a much greater chance of falling squarely on the pop charts, partly because he manages keep humor, hook and originality perfectly juggled. One obvious comparison came to mind over and over again over the course of Treddin'. England needs a Ludacris just as we need a Ludacris alternative.

That dirty south touchstone couldn't be more apt than on the first track. "The Game" is what people in boardrooms call "the hit single". Well, in a perfect world, it would be. Wiley builds backdrops out of butcher's cuts of symphony scraped to the bone and put back in the track like water flicked off fingers. That whiff of Ludicris is evident here where Wiley displays his ability to let the beat drop out from under him while he contintues to riff on the muscular grip of his widely strode vocal gait. "Wot Do U Call It?" sounds like Mouse on Mars going insane inside a hip-hop song, though it has the unfortunate subject matter of arguing with music critics. Why people write these kinds of songs is beyond me. Indifference, mate, indifference.

Though Wiley and Dizee were both members of London's Roll Deep Crew, they share almost nothing aesthetically outside that biographical crossroads. The beats on Treddin' share with Timbaland that sense of being "off" in a key that's as infectious as pop, but you have to work for it more, recalibrate your expectations before the beat makes counterintuitive sense. Unlike Timbaland, the beats do not collaborate in some solid, easy-to-peg counter rhythmic hook. Instead they twitch in skeletal constellations that pulse like blood circulation, a soundtrack perfectly suited to the jolts and half-steps of the undead, but no less contagious for having dropped the funk down a craggy steep hill. "Doorway" takes a drum 'n' bass core and cracks the rest of song on it like an egg. The ambient keyboards, glacial in contrast to the beats, have the curious effect of quartering the song in opposing forces, like badly mixed designer drugs. The surrealism works for Wiley though, who always seems to prevent the songs' oddities from derailing the invitation to move your ass.

Only a few times does Wiley seem to flub his style. "Got Somebody" mixes Wiley's strengths in exactly the wrong proportions. While it's certainly fun to dodge along with the ways in which the beats and backdrops swerve in near miss with the vocals, here the juxtaposition is pure scrape. With the slightest drag of distortion on the highly repetitive and nakedly inane lyrics that rewrite "I Need Love" without a workable chorus, this song brings one of the few fallow moments on a record that consistently gets itself. Maybe I just don't trust his hand with a ballad, because the other "Round the Way Girl" rewrite, "Special Girl" has all the lyrical grace of grocery list and a bass line that sounds like someone swallowing their Adam's apple. On these slower tracks, the rusty rivets of their construction show through and they sound simply like incompatible sounds scurrying beneath panty-raiding sensitivity that in its threadbare sincerity sounds like some executive told him to throw it on there "for the ladies". He's frankly much better when's he's just cleverly crass such as "Pies", which is a thinly veiled sexual reference dropped in a frenetically scattering song that sounds like a Japanese remix of the sound effects from Q-Bert.

A few coughs aside, this record is mad solid fun. If it were up to me (and really, it should be), this CD wouldn't just percolate in indie rags and critic's ephemeral now's , but wreck the FM clichés and give mouth to mouth to radio hip-hop. Someday we'll get over our xenophobic aversion to a rhyme wrapped in accent as surely as the most dominate voice in hip-hop today is a picked-on white kid from a trailer park who makes pop songs out of a psyche that they could use to train Quantico profilers.

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