Preview: Dizzee Rascal’s ‘The Fifth’

Clash reports on the rapper's latest LP...
Dizzee and Robbie

Dizzee Rascal has nothing left to prove. The Bow-born rapper – an underground-acclaimed grime emcee turned globe-trotting superstar of the mainstream, with a clutch of number one singles to his name – has been there, done that, worn the T-shirt out and bought several more for his entourage.

‘Boy In Da Corner’ and ‘Jus’ A Rascal’ feel like a lifetime ago – and, no doubt to some fans of this perma-smiling-on-camera artist, they were. To those who saw Dizzee rise courtesy of his Mercury Prize win in 2003, which foreshadowed successes at Ivor Novello and BRIT Award levels, though, the trajectory of this undeniably inimitable artist has seemed one coaxed into a distinctly predictable slant.

The 27-year-old’s fourth album, the self-released 2009 set 'Tongue N’ Cheek', is a certified-platinum success, with a spread of number-one hits scattered across its tracklist. But if you came to it from his dirtier, edgier fare, it was obviously a deliberate step towards a safe, middle ground recognition.

So, to alter an evidently winning formula on album five might well seem bonkers to outsiders looking in. But, equally, Dizzee’s not one to do things by anyone’s book but his own: even when he’s robbing a few pages from others along the way.

The Rascal’s esoteric nature had already stirred expectations ahead of ‘The Fifth’’s release, slated for July 1st. Collaborations with Bun B and Robbie Williams might seem fine far removed from one another, with very different projects on the burner; yet both cuts – ‘H Town’ and ‘Goin Crazy’ (listed without an apostrophe on the album cover; the artwork, by the way, is typically minimalist) respectively – appear in this new long-player’s running order.

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This combination of a relative unknown – to the British commercial centre, at least – and a certifiable pop heavyweight – no kind of pun intended – makes for a perplexing pre-listen dichotomy. Is ‘The Fifth’ a straight-up hip-hop joint with a passing interest in chart-friendly accessibility? Or does it tread almost exclusively in the creative shallows, adventures into the leftfield conspicuous by their scarcity?

Truth is, after some 14 and a half tracks’ worth of the album’s deluxe edition – one of the expanded set’s 16 tracks, ‘Here 2 China’, is skipped in its entirety as it’s already public as part of Calvin Harris’ ‘18 Months’ record; and we only get a flash of the equally out-there-presently ‘Bassline Junkie’ – Clash really isn’t sure either way.

First, the good, on a first impression. ‘The Fifth’ is a wonderfully diverse pack of tracks. Does it all hang together like a coherent album experience should? Certainly not – but Dizzee hasn’t been an album artist, first and foremost, for some years now. ‘The Fifth’ is, more than anything else, a collection of tracks that could exist on their own terms, as standalone downloads. And, based on a single playback, most of them could contest at the upper echelons of the singles chart.

Which is to say: this album has “hit” written all over it, in indelible marker the width of your fist. Coming away from it, that’s the persistent, recurring thought: this is a massive album, in waiting. A chart monster. It could yield five, maybe six top-10 singles. Easy. Maybe more. It all depends on what Dizzee and his team want to do. In its own way, in 2013, it could be the UK’s own 21st century ‘Thriller’.

Of course, ‘Thriller’ was always, across its whole, the work of an artist at the very pinnacle of his game. It couldn’t have been by anyone else. ‘The Fifth’ feels like it’s Dizzee operating at all cylinders, frequently; but isn’t without its reception-affecting quirks that really lend it a somewhat stale air. Front and centre amongst these potential hang-ups is the artist’s employed lexicon.

Bluntly, the vocabulary used by this British artist has never sounded more American. The profanity is one thing, and something long accepted – everyone in the UK is guilty of the occasional f-bomb. But the way in which the N-word is littered across this album just doesn’t feel right. Granted, this writer isn’t a late-20s black man from the East End. But he’s sure that the frequency with which this terminology is dropped is not wholly indicative of the place, and time, that Dizzee is from.

It feels, no doubt, like a courting of a stateside audience yet to truly embrace this otherwise international artist. Look at ‘Tongue N’ Cheek’: number three in the UK, but 121 stateside.

Now, it’s understandable that anyone making their living absolutely killing charts in the UK and Europe would want to see that success replicated across the pond; especially when the artist in question is working in a genre of music that’s a hybrid of a sound born in New York, and Jamaica before that.

But ‘The Fifth’ features several tracks that lose connection with their maker’s geographical roots: ‘I Don’t Need A Reason’ is just one that has the London listener reaching for their smartphone’s map app, to make sure they’ve not accidentally been transported to the other side of the Atlantic.

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The Bun B- and Trae The Truth-starring cut, ‘H Town’, was always going to be a departure for Dizzee. How can it not be with such a cast and such a title? Nevertheless, it feels unusual to hear this very British lyricist dropping couplets about a city in a state in a country that so many of his fans couldn’t give a monkeys about. On the plus side, though, credit to Dizzee for celebrating a hip-hop locale that’s neither NYC nor LA.

Of course, Bun B isn’t quite from Houston either, but perhaps that’s a moot point in the grand scheme. (And he has long been associated with the city, so...)

But we were addressing the good: and there’s plenty of it. ‘Something Really Bad’ features will.i.am, but the Black Eyed Peas man’s presence is a complementary one, his contributions naturally woven into a really propulsive, dancefloor-destined track that might just be the best thing the square-haired Voice judge has set his name to for who knows how many years.

‘Spend Some Money’ finds Dizzee and guest Tinie Tempah trading ferocious lines at speeds that really cast both in a fine light, and the low-end involved could make suspension bridges on the other side of town creak with weakness. ‘Heart Of A Warrior’ finds Dizzee absolutely killing it in the verses; although the soft-hearted chorus lines from Teddy Sky, who appears twice on this LP, rather temper the intoxicating flow.

There’s space for London, despite the prominent emphasis on foreign climes. ‘Bang Bang’ shouts out the English capital, suggesting we all “go hard in the city of London”, and celebrating the city’s embracing of “every creed and every colour”. It’d be more effective if not set to a tiresome Eurohouse thud; but the sentiment carries through nonetheless.

Right at the end of the deluxe tracklisting is a real curveball, which we barely get to hear. ‘Watch Your Back’, even without experiencing it completely, shines as something that the preceding offerings could never have telegraphed. The production feels spectral, spooked keys dancing around deep bass; the lyrics sound introspective, like they’re from the heart rather than by a committee.

Granted, lines like “What do you know about LA shootings / When you ain’t even been to Tooting” feel a little incongruous given what’s come before them; but the atmosphere of the track really connects. It’s a surprise that such a number is deemed a bonus-only cut.

And… the bad. Opener ‘Superman’ is a deplorable exercise in base-level misogyny, all “bitch” this and “bitch” that, despite a pleasing percussive bump. ‘Arse Like That’, with Sean Kingston, is every second as awful as its title implies – even if the on-record pronunciation is actually the American “ass” rather than with the British emphasis on the “arr” sound. Which, frankly, would have made the track a lot funnier, and subsequently a lot better.

‘Life Keeps Moving On’ is a fluffy closer of no real weight; and ‘We Don’t Play Around’, with Jessie J, is simply another one of those big Guetta-styled dance-pop tracks that the world really needs more of. But, to some, it’ll certainly be a standout – and Jessie J holds her own against her more credible cohort. She’s always been a solid vocalist, so more challenging work could bring out the best in her, in time.

A mixed bag, then? Well, yes. ‘The Fifth’, on just the one listen, feels like it lacks a backbone. It finds Dizzee – as the accompanying press backs up with its talk of working in studios across the world, alongside talents like RedOne – removed from his traditional base of operations and attempting to adapt his practices to fit new environments. Some things work, other things don’t. On a second, third and fourth listen, many an aspect will come into clearer focus. But right now, the verdict is a simple one.

Watch this space.

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‘The Fifth’ is released on July 1st via Island/Dirtee Stank.

Read an interview with Dizzee Rascal from 2009 here.

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