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Roots Manuva - Awfully Deep

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Artist: Roots Manuva

Album: Awfully Deep

Label: Big Dada

Review date: May. 26, 2005

Classic hip-hop moments in self-deprecation:

  • Del The Funkee Homosapien, “The Wacky World of Rapid Transit.” – Del not only tells story of (gasp!) riding the bus, but admits he prefers sitting with the old folks in the front rather than the hoods in the back.

  • Fatlip, “What’s Up, Fatlip?” – Former member of The Pharcyde admits, essentially, to having fallen the fuck off, in every imaginable way. Spike Jonze video features ’Lip in a flasher’s coat, a clown costume (being punched in the groin) and on a bicycle (jacked by 8-year-olds).

  • Roots Manuva, Awfully Deep.

Four years after the critically lauded Run Come Save Me, Rodney Smith’s third LP delves deeper into his own personal hell than ever before, battling paranoia and depression, being overhyped and underappreciated, and even considering retirement on possibly his best song ever, “Colossal Insight.” An electro-blip dotted masterpiece with an ill descending bassline, it’s a lyrical mishmash of perspectives contradictory, yet oddly singular, with Smith confessing to God that, “I got nothin’ but my balls and my word.” These shards of religion are scattered throughout the record: dub-inspired “Mind 2 Motion” captures Smith asking for forgiveness for his “sinny-sin-sins” before the hook calls party people to “shake away the hurt”; in the relentless “Awfully Deep,” he sees “the devil sit right before me” in a psychiatric hospital.

Smith’s tracks are both banging and self-effacing, yet the two opposite impulses never seem fully at odds with each other. Whether it’s just refreshing to hear an emcee as unsure of himself as the rest of us or just a matter of impeccable craft, hooks like “sometimes I hate myself / sometimes I love myself” (“Too Cold”) prove awfully sticky. The beats definitely help the medicine go down, a varied lot even down to the fundamental rhythms. Where “Rebel Heart” is all polyrhythmic beat and synthetic horn, “A Haunting” dares to let a raga bass-and-horn pattern take the lead, never even putting a real boom-bip in the forefront.

Newcomers to the Roots Manuva sound may hear a touch of Dizzee Rascal’s genesis in grimy offerings like the swaggering, mechanized “Chin High,” but Smith is more into turning reggae electric than dabbling in unmelodic noise. On album catharsis point “The Falling,” a list of societal ills that purges as it cries out, Smith goes so far as to break into church organ, fearlessly putting the track on its knees looking up at the sky. More surprising still, it works.

Neither positive nor negative, unprepared to walk the path, but unafraid to call out sin by its proper name, Roots Manuva may be stuck in the topical purgatory where hip-hop audiences on both sides of the pond and the mainstream divide don’t quite get him. But that’s their loss. As for those who can see the ambiguities of their lives clearly, those who listen to music not just to brood in their sadness or attain euphoria but to hear a reflection of life itself, here’s your record.

By Josh Drimmer

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