If the rise of Jamaican syllable swinger Sean Paul and any number of mush-mouthed Dirty South MCs tells you anything, it’s that pop lyrics don’t need to be intelligible to get over. They never did, of course — see Nat King Cole’s “The Frim Fram Sauce” or the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” or Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” The only requirement is that the lyrics act like a tongue in your ear. So just because some of 19-year-old British rapper Dizzee Rascal’s best rhymes scan like Lewis Carroll translated into backward Korean (“Chung intelligent yaps in hospie flats”) is no reason to count him out. Because, seriously:Boy in Da Corner, which has sold 200,000 copies in the U.K. and is just now getting a U.S. release, is the hottest and strangest hip-hop import to bubble up since the Streets changed British rap from a punch line to a genre. Trend? Maybe. The generation of British beatheads who grew up pledging allegiance to jungle/drum’n’bass — England’s last great contribution to 20th-century culture — were left (extremely) high and dry when the bottom fell out of the scene a few years back. Some took to the R&B hybrid known as “garage,” which has given the world Craig David and a raft of empty MCs. Other junglists, like Dylan Mills, better known as Dizzee Rascal, worked to invent a regional hip-hop that didn’t come off like the Naked Chef aping DMX while chopping parsley.
On Boy in Da Corner, it’s the sound that gets you straightaway: odd, vaguely Asian synth melodies and bursts of guitar over skittering beats and strrretched-out bass lines that snarl like Shy FX dubplates given the DJ Screw slow-mo treatment. And the flow is straight-up alien: chilled-out and frantic at the same time, slightly breathless, as if Dizzee is wrestling the cadences of British street language inside his mouth. The verbal rhythms start to resemble jungle’s speedballing drum clatter; the effect is claustrophobic and almost literally dizzying.
Once your ear becomes acclimated (it will; peeping lyricsdomain.com helps), the rhymes show off some deep MC storytelling. Dizzee has talked about how much he revered Nirvana as a kid — he once told a journalist “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was “like a retreat I could hide in” and that Cobain’s death was as big for him as Tupac’s or Biggie’s. There’s a bitter sadness here. “I’m vex at humanity, vex at the earth / I keep getting vex, till I think, ‘What’s the worth?'” he rhymes on “Sittin’ Here,” a song that begins with him watching the world from a perch and ends with him so bummed he’s practically weeping.
It’s not all existentialism; dude can be dead funny (“I socialize in Hackney or Bow / I wear my trousers ridiculously low!”). He also can be a prick. Dizzee “don’t promote no violence” but will wave a lyrical gun or baseball bat when necessary. And on a bad day, girls are all “bimbos, freaks, and nymphos.” But if women come off poorly, men don’t fare much better, and on “I Luv U” — the pro-contraception single Dizzee cut at age 16 — Jeanine Jacques’ cameo gives both sexes equal time to savage each other on a ping-pong chorus that turns the phrase “Oh, well” into a withering dis.
Dizzee has already been called England’s best rapper, won last year’s Mercury Music Prize, and opened for Jay-Z at Wembley Arena. He’s also been dogged by violence: When he was stabbed last summer during what was rumored to be a feud with garage roughnecks So Solid Crew, the U.K. tabloids went nuts. How all this will affect a loner street kid from East London remains to be seen; ditto as to whether U.S. heads will feel him. But Dizzee’s balancing act between street rapper and introspective avant-backpacker is virtually unprecedented. Could the Brits actually be improving upon a music born in the USA? Yo, they’ve done it before.