Thursday, 23 April 2009

Speech Debelle - 'Speech Therapy' (Big Dada 2009)

Speech Debelle’s debut album is an emotive wistful collection of passion-filled songs oozing with bittersweet triumph, knowing smiles and the kind of emotion usually absent from all-show hip-hop. This is a breath of fresh air for two reasons: one, it’s rare the largely male UK hip-hop scene opens its closed gates long enough for a female rapper to come through and get the props she deserves. Not for Speech Debelle. Also, this is the livest, most instrument-focussed record Big Dada has put out in years. It has become synonymous with electronic, dubby hip-hop. This album, recorded mostly in Australia with live musicians, including drummers, clarinets and mostly put together by the underrated Lotek, featuring moments by Tunng and Aussie, Plutonic Lab, this is fire on all cylinders.

The syncopated, acoustic mournful yearn of ‘Searching’ opens proceedings, a clitter-clatter of focussed rhymes and beautiful elegiac music. Speech Debelle, sounds younger than her 25 years with her babyish little-girl-lost vocals. Speech Debelle sounds older than her 25 years with her wise words and tough stories of hardships in hostels, with absent fathers and with failing love affairs. Mostly recorded in Australia, it still manages to perfectly soundtrack London, especially on ‘Wheels in Motion’ a powerful sociological look at life in the big bad city. ‘Go On, Bye’ deals with rejection, and uses zeitgeist references like Facebook and texts to set a picture of a real-life love affair failing in real terms in this real world here. The pain is real. Don’t doubt. There’s pain in her voice. There’s passion and there’s articulation and commitment. There are elements of Lauryn Hill’s first album here, a duel between summery vibes and the firsthand experience of someone going through tough times. ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ is a fragile yet scathing attack on an absent father over dark rumbling dubbed bass and some funky drums. It’s a testament to Lotek’s production techniques and abilities that his stamp is on this but it’s a far cry from stuff he’s produced for Roots Manuva or for his own Lotek Hi-fi. Instead, it is a sound all Speech Debelle, his delicate touch and live instrumentation add gravitas to a vocal talent. The awesome Micachu and the inimitable Roots Manuva turn up on chorus duties, for the triumphant ‘Better Days’ and the piano-laden London dissection of ‘Wheels in Motion’, strings pulsing in the background.

There are many themes on here. It stays mostly away from the thugged-out grimy London life tales, instead focussing on a more poetical narrative, like on ‘Buddy Love’, a funny interpretation on that moment when you start sleeping with a close friend. The balance between happiness and melancholy is delicate throughout, teetering on the edge of dissolving in an overflow of emotion, there are moments of wistfulness and there is a deep intelligent socio-political eye for detail that never misses a beat. ‘Finish this Album’ discusses how important this album is to Speech, this is her therapy, her observations, her desperation to get everything out of her system because she may never get to this point again, may never have anything to say again and this nervy friction between need and desire provides a beautiful insight into the mind of a creative artist whose output is their everything, who validates themselves through their art, making this her reason to be. It’s brilliant urgent rallying call and thank god she did, so when album closer ‘Speech Therapy’ arrives, we’re with her, we’re on to her, we believe in her spoken word delivery we hear the final words echo out: ‘And I’m just learning how this world really works, It’s a law that says you get back what you put forth.’ And for this, she deserves all the praise she is owed. This is her Speech Therapy, it ain’t just rap.

Speech Debelle

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