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Friday, August 15, 2003

++ Cornering Dizzee Rascal, Part Two

++ It's not often that anyone approaches an album by calling attention to his or her favorite individual sounds contained therein, but that's just what Simon Reynolds did in some of his early appraisals of Dizzee Rascal's Boy in da Corner. It's not a bad approach, mind you — I've always been more attracted to sounds than songwriting, so that in Cat Power, say, or Barbara Morgenstern, what attracts me has less to do with the song as a whole than the way a particular vocalization twists up out of the mix and contorts itself, dolphin-like, before splashing back down into the tune. Or consider the Clipse's "Grindin'" — what is that song really about if not that sound (it might be a wheezing motor failing to turn over) that replaces the snare drum? Or, better yet, the squirmy, falsetto pronunciation of "grinding" that pipes up in the chorus?

Dance music and hip-hop, when most sonically attentive, seem to take two contradictory approaches. On the one hand, there's the linear layering of sounds, Op-Art style, to create a new sensation of depth. Consider Richie Hawtin and Steve Bug's "Low Blow," which twists together the merest handful of strands — a thudding kick drum, undulating bass, filtered rumbling, and oily, thinned-out ride cymbals — into a dynamic, ever-morphing collision of waveforms. Consider this the horizontal approach, predicated upon duration. On the other hand, there's the pointillist, cut-and-paste methodology espoused by the likes of Akufen, who — influenced as much by collagists like the Bomb Squad as classic house producers — composes by stone-stepping from sample to chunky sample. Every moment in time is self-sufficient, and while the illusion of duration is carried out by blurring the points of rupture, half of the joy is to be found in these individual sonic eruptions.

Dizzee Rascal's Boy in da Corner, despite its narrative bent, is far more exciting when considered along the vertical axis. No matter how fantastic the drum programming, how engrossing Dizzee's spiel, the album's most ecstatic pleasures lie in the individual sounds that puncture its flow and proclaim themselves unique, autonomous, and standing damn near outside of time itself. (Except, of course, in the context of repetition — which finds you sitting on the edge of your seat, waiting, almost salivating, for them to crop up again.)

++ With that being said, here's a survey of my own favorite sounds on the album:

"Brand New Day": An overdubbed cry (almost literally, "Whoo!") breaks through at the close of Dizzee's lament, "We used to fight with kids from other estates/ Now 8 millimeters settle debates." The yelp is thrilling, almost celebratory, and therefore stands in stark contrast to the content of the song — it's an amoral, even animalistic cry.

"Seems to Be": The Ice-T quote at the beginning ("The dopest, flyest OJ pimp-hustler, gangster player hardcore motherfucker living today") is a kick, but the real genius here is in the sampled "and" that punctuates the chorus ("love and war and hate and life..."). More diligent sample-spotters than I will probably have a better clue as to its provenance, but the nasal, Cockney (and, to my ears, white) pronunciation for some reason screams New Wave to me: Gary Numan? If it is New Wave, its inclusion opens up a fascinating wormhole through history, race, and genre. And in any case, the very idea of sampling a simple conjunction instead of rapping it — blurring the line between spoken and played, singer and production, man and machine — is great enough in itself. Dizzee uses the same tactic with the sampled "uh" on "Sittin' Here" and "2 For," sequencing the chopped-up utterance the way another producer would use hi-hats or handclaps.

"Live O": A lesser producer would have been happy enough with the doomy bass lunge and pipsqueak bleep that make up the tune's hook, but Dizzee went one further, dirtying up a grimy rhythm track (which owes more than a little to "Grindin'," it must be said) with a savage screech bursting through the final beat of every four-bar sequence. It's buried so deep, you might not hear it until after dozens of listens, but it's always there, as creepy as a jungle beast heard in the tangled dark.

"2 For": Dizzee multitracks Wiley's rap with a Chipmunk-styled backing vocal, upping the paranoia quotient of this hurt, self-defensive tirade with a rattling, echoing, helium hit of a schizo companion, turning lines like "Where was you when I was blue" into portraits of collapsing identity. Also on this tune, it can't be a coincidence that the first two actual notes here (more of that Asian string sound he loves so much) are identical to the opening notes of "In da Club." Except that 50 Cent's tune goes deep immediately, opening with a chord resonating five fathoms below, while Dizzee's starts thin and proceeds to skimboard across the surface, before belly-flopping on his backhand crackle, bristling with knuckles and scabs.

"Cut 'Em Off": Right after he confesses to wearing his trousers "ridiculously low," the unabashed Dizzee offers up that he loves "females, money" and... crepes? Can't be, but I'll go on wishing that it were. In any case, when he says "females," his voice wobbles perilously, as unstable as the hormones behind it. It's all there in the seasick intonation: as hard as he tries to sound, he's as adrift as the rest of us, and not afraid to let it show. (I can't even make my voice waver like that, and I'm as uncertain in my infatuations as you can get.)

"Fix Up, Look Sharp": I've already written about the trigger-click in Dizzee's pronunciation of "hectic," but that's just one nugget in this goldmine of sonic pleasures. You've got your "whoo!" (not the same as the one used in "Brand New Day"), made all the more potent for the way Dizzee cuts it short, silencing its sustain and delay in a digital vacuum, where the cry is doomed forever to remain incomplete and thus unfulfilled: expression interrupted. You've got your utterly ridiculous Billy Squier samples, of course, both the monstrous drum break and Squier's sung refrains. (Does Dizzee's immediate audience have any idea who Squier is?) This is Dizzee's most frantic song, where his voice tears on every syllable like canvas on bent nails; it also contains one of my favorite of his raps: "More destructive and troublesome than ever/ I'll probably be doing this, probably forever/ Fellas wanna stop me, they'll prob'ly come together/ It's probable they'll stop me, probably never." The way he addresses his challengers, actually entertaining the possibility that he'll be taken down, before flipping it up and finishing with his defiant, "probably never," never fails to bring a smile to my face. (That he wears a Golden State Warriors jersey in the video for the song only helps to reinforce his dogged underdoggedness.)


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