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Speech Debelle - Speech Therapy

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Artist: Speech Debelle

Album: Speech Therapy

Label: Big Dada

Review date: Sep. 11, 2009

Speech Debelle isnít the only Speech on the hip-hop circuit. Believe it or not, Arrested Development is still touring. But she shouldnít have any trouble differentiating herself from that troupeís uninhibitedly cheerful MC. Debelle is British, she sounds like a Smurf, and sheís not necessarily out to heal the world (or, for that matter, the American South) with a message of tolerance and positivity. Those sentiments donít even enter in to the equation on Speech Therapy, this promising rapperís Mercury Prize-winning debut. She sounds a little wounded, frankly.

Deeply personal and at times almost disturbingly poignant (not Geto Boys poignant but definitely Pete Rockís "They Reminisce Over You" poignant), Speech Therapy doesnít introduce much in the way of "new" other than Debelleís impossibly high and squeaky voice. Her backing tracks have an impressive live feel to them and she uses a nice mix of seldom-deployed tempos, but the real reason Speech Therapy is in the spotlight is Debelleís unique vocal style and bittersweet outlook on life. On the albumís breakout tune, "Go Then, Bye," Debelle seems on the edge of tears but remains resolute and determined throughout as a jazz combo gets emotional with a string section straight off a Curtom session. Itís provides an urgent counterpoint to her pleading, elven alto. At the risk of sounding trite, she tells an ex "I canít see your face on Facebook / ĎCuz weíre not friends on Facebook." Itís at once an undeniably sappy and all too common sentiment.

With such a fresh-for-now approach (nary a hint of Auto-Tune), one might wonder who gains more from the appearance of critical darling Micachu on the cut "Better Days." Micachu is way more the vanguard as she raps alongside her own chorus, but Debelle brings it back to the center with a disingenuously yuppie couplet: "Iím tryiní to hold down the smoke, and the drink / And Iím tryiní to get in the gym amongst other things..." Itís a charming admission given much of the albumís tendency to sound more like an audio newsletter from the Council Estates, but, just like the Facebook reference, itís not the only anapotism. Even if Speech Therapy, for all its dour resignation, seems a rather surprising Mercury Prize winner, the gentle, pretty sounds behind the quivering sadness of Debelleís voice remain true throughout.

By Andy Freivogel

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