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Dizzee Rascal - Maths + English

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Artist: Dizzee Rascal

Album: Maths + English

Label: XL

Review date: Jul. 30, 2007

In keeping with its scholastic title, Maths + English marks the continued education of Dizzee Rascal. Rascal emerged prodigiously in 2003 with his single "I Luv U," a lament about infatuation unrequited, which, at its heights, was so frank it verged on the hideous. "I Luv U" was less pop than psychoanalysis. In its abrasive score and Rascal's confrontational inflection, "I Luv U" recalled not the trope of teenage heartbreak but the menace of nascent adulthood and the reconciliation of newfound physical passions with preordained social constraints. Rare is the artist who performs adolescence with such honesty. Inevitably (and deservedly), awards and pageantry followed.

In the four years since, Dizzee has matured and, in the process, wrestled with the direction of his career. Hip hop, after all, is a young man's game; teenagers must grow up or move out. His last full-length effort, Showtime, was a half-hearted reach, touching the possibilities of Dizzee’s immense talent but failing to grasp them wholly. Maths + English, by comparison, is confident and lunges with both hands extended. As a single body, Maths is more coherent than Showtime or Boy in Da Corner, Rascal's acclaimed debut album. And whereas Showtime suggested Dizzee was limiting himself to the comfort of U.K. grime mechanics, Maths evidences a broader range. Rascal is savvier and worldlier – in short, older.

This is not to say, however, that in four years Rascal has achieved some precocious forbearance belying his barely legal age. He has grown up but is not necessarily grown-up; his predilection for women and trouble – often, for one and the same – has remained constant. When he boasts "You wouldn't believe some of the shit I've seen, man," on "Da Feelin'," a pimping-ain't-easy standard, Rascal is not speaking with disgust but with wonder. "So I been around the world now / Rose to the occasion / Those different folks, different strokes / Black, white, and Asian / … Riding jet skis and powerboats, feel so amazing." His personal tastes may be extravagant, but they are still juvenile. The difference between Maths and Rascal's earlier works lies, rather, in Rascal's professional maturity as an artist.

There are three ways in which Rascal has explored the limits of his craft on Maths, each to positive effect. First, Rascal plumbs older musical styles, a move consistent with his previous single "Fix Up, Look Sharp," a charged anthem that judiciously quoted Billy Squier. "Pussyole (Oldskool)" summons Lyn Collins's "Think (About It)" break – more familiar to listener's ears as the beat for Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock's "It Takes Two" – as a celebration of the past in the present. "Sirens" similarly channels an older style of American hip-hop and uses a plodding electric guitar, undoubtedly, to allude to Rick Rubin's late-’80s Def Jam recordings. The songs may both be old school but each functions according to different principles. "Pussyole" uses the past only in the sense of appropriation, recasting the historical to form a sound most contemporary. "Sirens," in contrast, is a restoration piece – an instance, as Rascal describes it, of "old school storytelling" with no pretense of meeting today's tastes.

On Maths, Rascal has also progressed in his range of character, which tended towards the aggressive, and has learned to lighten up. Lily Allen guests on "Wanna Be," a chastisement of the various posers in Rascal's periphery. Allen serves as both Rascal's muse and heel, providing the chorus and assuming the role of one of Rascal's antagonists. The song, balanced on one piano chord keeping time, is silly and recalls Showtime's "Dream," which used an ingratiating Rodgers & Hammerstein chorus as a vehicle for Dizzee to recount various forward-thinking platitudes. But where "Dream" was a burden, "Wanna Be" is whimsical. Rascal can, it seems, convincingly hide his teeth when he wants.

Finally, Rascal teams with the South's well-traveled ambassadors, UGK, for "Where Da G's," Maths's most impressive song. The similarities between Southern crunk and UK grime have always been clear from their general, descriptive features. Both subgenres rely on slow, off-kilter beats as a ring in which rappers jab their stanzas in quick succession. The two don't promp dancing so much as hopping – bodies rise and sink as if listeners were performing calf-raises. Regardless of these comparisons, the two, in performance and criticism, have remained largely isolated from one another. "Where Da G's," however, illustrates crunk and grime's shared assumptions clearly. As Rascal, Bun B and Pimp C go verse for verse, the difference in dialect is subsumed by their common wit and pointedness. They might have different accents, but they speak the same language. "Where Da G's" is a remarkable song, in the end, because it bridges two styles usually distinguished by location. It suggests that the provincialism of UK grime and Southern crunk may give way to a more cosmopolitan sound, unbound by increasingly arbitrary divisions of territory.

By Ben Yaster

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