During the second half of last year, the stateside chatter about English teenager Dizzee Rascal grew from a subterranean rumble not unlike the rapper-producer's beluga-whale basslines into a full-fledged hubbub as ecstatic as his Mach 2 rhymes. By December there was even a lengthy feature in the New York Times, published over a month before the album was available on a domestic label. When the Village Voice published its annual poll of pop music critics, Dizzee's debut album, Boy in da Corner, was voted the 10th best album of '03, the strongest finish by an import-only release since the Mekons' 1991 album, The Curse of the Mekons.
A still unpublished study has shown that every American who owns The Curse of the Mekons is either some sort of rock critic, currently or formerly employed in recorded-music retail, or my cousin in Akron, Ohio, who privately admits to not liking the album. As if to repel a similar curse, Dizzee's new Showtime seems partly designed to win more fans in the U.S., where the (widely downloaded) Boy has moved 45,000 of its 250,000 international sales total, and where Dizzee can't walk the streets without being nearly recognized by mumbling throngs of record-label interns.
Multi-platinum sales figures or no, Showtime (XL/Beggars Group) is a baby-I'm-a-star record. At one point, Dizzee thanks the "over 100,000 people" who bought his debut. Perhaps that figure was accurate when the track was recorded, but how often does an MC even appear to underestimate his popularity? About as often, I suppose, as artists this young are this multidimensional. Boy in da Corner evoked Biggie's blend of belligerence and despondency and threw in some of the unmistakably teenage melancholia of the Beach Boys' "In My Room." Similarly, Showtime responds to global semi-celebrity with a mix of braggadocio and an odd sort of modesty. On "Everywhere," the professedly omnipresent Dizzee mirrors Jay-Z's God complex. "Face" ends with a female guest badmouthing Dizzee's latest video and pronouncing a strong preference for Jay-Z. Dizzee offers no comeback (other, that is, than the whole album).
I'm not sure if Dizzee is making this reference, but "It's Showtime!" was the signature line in All That Jazz, Bob Fosse's great lonely-at-the-top movie. On Showtime's final line, Dizzee moans that he's "trying to live the high life but at what cost?" which is a disappointingly trite way to close such a strong piece of work. It's not too convincing, either. Dizzee sounds happier than he was pre-fame. Boy was a prickly sad-gangster record with a few convivial interruptions. Showtime is a glad-rapper record with a few prickly and violent interruptions, and most of its melodies--and there are more certified melodies here than on the often proudly cacophonous Boy--are downright breezy. "Dream" even takes its chorus from Rodgers and Hammerstein's sunny Orientalist horror "Happy Talk" (by way of a Captain Sensible sample). Like Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life," the song laughs at its incongruous sample, but the optimism ("if you don't have a dream, how you gonna make a dream come true?") is sincere. Also, the brutal misogyny of Boy's "Jezebel" has been softened to the less hateful goatishness of "Girls," which unforgivably uses the word "gash" but also has the good humor to include the Sir Mix-A-Lot-worthy simile "[she's] thick like porridge" (courtesy of goofy-voiced guest Marga Man).
Partly because Dizzee doesn't deliver it, I caught that porridge gag right away. Dizzee raps real fast, close to Twista speed on a few cuts, and his East London accent is thick like boiled oatmeal. To further obfuscate matters, he hiccups, barks, yaps, and swallows his rhymes. Listening casually, I can understand 10 percent of what he's saying. Listening closely, I can decipher about half the words, which unveils a roughly 7:3 gem-to-dud ratio. Whatever he's talking about, Dizzee's flow is improved on this album--more confident with his beboplike runs, more artful in his use of repetition and in his odd stresses and pauses.
Dizzee's principal appeal, though, remains his unique music, which draws on drum 'n' bass, hardcore (in the club sense), garage (in the U.K. club sense), dancehall, rock, hip hop in general and Timbaland, crunk, and Kanye West in particular. (For another take on this sound, often called grime, check out Treddin' on Thin Ice by Wiley, who was once Dizzee's musical tutor.) Especially on the brilliant "Brand New Day," Boy in da Corner wasn't afraid of beauty, but it wasn't afraid of ugliness, either. It reveled in noise and icy digital sound: snares like heavy breathing or a hammer hitting aluminum siding, cheap new-age string patches, beeps out of the audio portion of an educational slide show, insectival buzzes and chips, bass tones that seemed to not be the bass itself but rather the objects in a normally furnished room that rattle and vibrate in response to a very low tone. With exceptions such as "Fix Up, Look Sharp," the trip-you-up beats on Boy in da Corner often make Timbaland sound like Kenny Aronoff.
Showtime doesn't turn its back on those weird sounds and rhythms, but on the whole it's more straightforward. "Respect Me" uses a standard mid-tempo rock beat; "Stand Up Tall" is hopped-up and easy to follow like new wave; "Get By" offers a fairly conventional chorus, badly sung, alas, by (uncle!) Vanya. Dizzee's music can sound robotic, but his childlike tunes, usually rendered by dinky high-pitched synth sounds, are human all the way. They sound like the kind of things a top-drawer handbell choir might make up before rehearsal starts in earnest, which shouldn't be a compliment but somehow is.
Showtime isn't as excitingly experimental as Boy. Then again, the first album was also overlong, whereas this one never lags. Even in a more commercial mode, Dizzee is making strange stuff that's like nothing else; even mellowed, he's nasty. The bassline from "Graftin'," for instance, suggests the look on a cowboy's face as he shoots a campmate--just for snoring. The whole package comes together on "Hype Talk," on which a periodic bassline trades spare parts with offbeat snare claps, and a winsome melody relaxes up top. Meanwhile, a guy who actually deserves his hype spews English words that I feel no real need to comprehend.