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Roots Manuva - Slime & Reason

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Artist: Roots Manuva

Album: Slime & Reason

Label: Big Dada

Review date: Sep. 30, 2008

Roots Manuva’s fourth full-length of completely new material – Slime & Reason – was released on the first of September in the U.K. The anticipatory singles have been circling the British radio circuit since June. Already out-charting 2005’s debated Awfully Deep, the album is being regarded as a return-to-form for the iconic oddball emcee and producer. But barely a mumble has been heard in the U.S. press about the forthcoming stateside release. No singles, no hype, little anticipation. Promotional material is no doubt limited to a tight circulation of college/community radio stations and friendly independent media. I’m curious if crossover success is even a priority for Big Dada anymore.

One certainly can’t blame Big Dada for not trying, though; Stockwell’s Rodney ‘Roots Manuva’ Smith is just a U.K.-centric phenomenon. A talented producer as well as lyricist, Smith weaves all of Britain’s favorite urban styles – hip hop, ragga, dub and funk – into warped albums of gritty club jams and introspective message tracks. His vocal style morphs like a talented Jamaican toaster, hyping the crowd in his thick slang one second and flipping into a self-parodying slur the next. He is a Lee Perry descendent with Tricky, Bounty Killer and Smif-n-Wessun cassettes in his pocket. But while many of Smith’s neighboring successors (Dizzee Rascal, the Streets, and from a production standpoint, Burial) have found an American market, he still remains relatively unnoticed. Slime & Reason – despite being a varied, enjoyable and creative record – doesn’t figure to change that.

The first two singles – "Again & Again" and "Buff Nuff" – is Manuva’s digitalic dancehall at its finest: Smith’s near unintelligible (at least to my American ears) cadence of urban slang and Jamaican toasting, staccato digital horns battling laser-like sine-waves, and of course plenty of that Studio One deep-end to keep the sound systems rattling. "Buff Nuff" with its claustrophobic arrangement of synth, drum and bass sequences especially reflects Smith’s influence on the burgeoning grime and dubstep movements during his popularity boost in the late ‘90s. Very few of those followers can match his near-perfect balance of abrasive synths with such a malleable flow.

The third single shows Roots Manuva in a whole different light. A burbling electro-funk track, "Let the Spirit" is not nearly as weighty as Smith’s typical message songs. It splits time between the concerned rapper and the nearly gospel-like uplifting chorus of handclaps and his slightly awkward soul croon. It’s a basic rap-verse, sing-chorus framework that works well, thanks to Smith’s multi-dimensional voice, and which he repeats a number of times on Slime & Reason with varying degrees of American rap, U.K. grime and Jamaican dancehall influences.

Don’t worry if Smith’s quirk is your main draw, though, because Slime & Reason only furthers his evolution into becoming a mad scientist of digital dub production (with excellent contributions from Toddla T and Metronomy) and vocal menace. The thick, wall-of-synth tracks of "It’s Me Oh Lord" and "I’m a New Man" sound like Dälek attempting urban soul tunes. And at the other end of the spectrum, "The Show Must Go On" is six minutes of Prince-meets-Scientist-meets-Dr. Dre production with sober rhymes and an achingly crooned chorus.

Roots Manuva will probably never make substantial noise on this side of the Atlantic. Rodney Smith simply has nowhere to cross over to. His style is too eclectic for our rap mainstream, too urban-synth (and un-ironic) for the indie elite, too ragga-influenced for the back-packers, and too hip hop for the dancehall. He’s an individual and oddball in the current clone-heavy state of the music industry. Hardly a complaint.

By Michael Ardaiolo

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