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Wiley, ‘Evolve or Be Extinct’ (Big Dada)

SPIN Rating: 4 of 10
Release Date: January 19, 2012
Label: Big Dada

A few years ago, Wiley tumbled headlong into the much-mythologized major-label grinder, and he’s spent the past few years trying to piece the meat back together. In 2008, on the Asylum-released See Clear Now, the seminal grime MC/producer scrubbed himself clean with a stretch of pop-baiting, commercially successful singles — including Mark Ronson- and Hot Chip-produced tracks that had nothing to do with the frozen-solid, icepick-sharp road music upon which he’d built his legacy.

To hear Wiley tell it, the album was a disastrous fluke dictated by the label, so he pulled a 180 to supposedly clear his good name: going the mixtape route, reiterating his dominance as a producer, doing a cred collabo with Dipset babyface Juelz Santana and ATL-via-South London grime rapper Giggs, and completely renouncing his dalliance with glossy bottle-service tunes. In case we missed the point, he named his next album 100% Publishing.

Evolve or Be Extinct — another mission-statement album title if ever there was one — finds Wiley similarly determined to stay in fighting shape. Once again reaffirming his roots in grime’s cold bosom (and conveniently so, as the genre’s grittier underground is currently having a moment), the man nicknamed “Eskiboy” wants to circle back to the streets and raves, his combatively detached, agile tenor slicing the air. Even at his lyrical finest, though, Wiley the producer was always the star attraction — his sproingy, carved-down alternate-universe beats defining an entire sound (which is why his old pop tracks squashed grime fans with the thud of a cartoon anvil). He’s an orchestrator of the genre, an icon via the Roll Deep Crew, and the magic potion behind Dizzee Rascal’s success.

Wiley’s past is undeniable; unfortunately, Evolve or Be Extinct can’t crawl out from under its shadow. The production is a return to form, but it’s as though he’s been Han Solo-frozen for the past 10 years of his own icy genre’s evolution, and with few exceptions here he’s fallen into another archetypal trap: that of the mid-career MC hard-pressed to remind us of his relevance. Midlife crises beget nostalgia, and this record’s back-to-basics approach is not a better aesthetic choice than, say, Nas lamenting the loss of hip-hop’s original spirit — Wiley’s tantrums are admittedly far more enjoyable to listen to, but that’s not saying much, or really anything.

The concept that a veteran grime star is stepping into the same nostalgia traps that continually befall hip-hop greats as they age is a mental disconnect — wasn’t grime meant to be eternally fresher, newer, cooler? But as genres last long enough for an old guard to emerge, perhaps it’s an inevitable, fundamentally human impulse. Regardless, Evolve‘s navel-gazing quickly grows tiresome. Few rappers in any country enunciate as quickly, skillfully, and urgently as Eski, yet that doesn’t excuse the requisite disco tracks (“Boom Blast”) and late-entry skank anthems (er, “I’m Skankin”). Ironically, it’s his misguided, poppier-minded choruses that deflate the most, his dexterity distorted by strained concepts and awkward singing.

Other tracks hammer home the point too hard. “Weirdo,” which proclaims Wiley’s, well, weirdness on a beat that sounds like a Holodeck malfunction, is redundant and shortsighted: This is the man who brought us “Pies” and “Eski Boy,” and yet he seems to think we don’t know who he is. Should we be offended? It’s a disappointing contradiction when put up against bloody battle tracks (“Evolve or Be Extinct,” “Scar”) and reflective evocations of the personal (“This Is Just an Album,” the amazing “Cheer Up, It’s Christmas,” plus every track about immigration/race discrimination), which actually do help to develop his narrative beyond the one we know from his machete-brags and incessant Twitter feed. Lead single “Link Up” offers one of the most vital grime beats in years, classically stabby with bass and synth strings, but pressed into the service of a jiggy hook-up song, it’s a waste of an idea.

Meanwhile, the genre he helped invent evolves without him: Wiley may assert that “grime is me,” but the sound has since accelerated past him. Newer producers like Darq E Freaker and Royal-T have developed the sound into a more complicated, offensive state, and MCs like Tempa T and Lady Leshurr have pulled their insane cadences into the 21st century Eski could once only imagine. Grime’s futuristic, more playful, harder edge fulfills its early-’00s promise, yet hasn’t closed itself off to other progressive sounds pervading British dance culture. Even Dizzee Rascal is channeling his energies into becoming a label mogul, signing still-innovative vets Newham Generals and newbies like Smurfie Syco to his Dirtee Stank imprint. Wiley seems to better understand the evolution elsewhere — his U.K. funky skank crew Boy Betta Know had an awesome hit in 2009’s “Too Many Man” — but Evolve seems impervious to any influence but his own, leaving it with a sheen of dust.

Eski always has been extraordinarily volatile (recall the anti-Asian sentiments he unleashed on Twitter, which led to a fight and subsequent peace effort with U.K. Desi DJ Bobby Friction). His temper and ego are what make him such a terrifying, admirable opponent, and his ticking fuse has delivered much pleasure. But for all the banging beauty in its beats, Evolve or Be Extinct is too forced and uncomfortable, as though he figured he’d evolve if he just over-thought it enough. Wiley certainly won’t be extinct anytime soon — he’s too prolific and too important. But in a tightly wound genre like grime, he’d do well to loosen up.