Well, well, well. After four years of near silence, Roots Manuva releases ‘Bleeds’, his sixth LP to date. One of the pioneers of UK hip-hop, Roots Manuva, AKA Rodney Smith, has been in the biz since '94. His iconic 2001 single ‘Witness’, with its lackadaisical vocals laid over a disjointed electronic backdrop, came to epitomise his idiosyncratic sound and establish his presence as one of the key figures in the UK scene. At the same time, his eccentricity has always meant that he does not sit statically within the genre.
In typical Roots Manuva style (and a-typical hip-hop style), ‘Bleeds’ is heavily understated. This sense of understatement is inherent to the sound of his grumbling, lethargic vocals. As ever, though, these vocals are thrown into sharp contrast with their surroundings - and never more so than in the Four Tet produced ‘Facety 2:1’, Roots Manuva’s first single from ‘Bleeds’, released earlier this year. At times, Four Tet’s heady sound makes the track feel almost too busy - but the sense of harmonious chaos that emerges after listening a few times is testament to Roots' (and Kieran Hebden's) inventiveness.
Roots Manuva’s trademark eeriness reemerges throughout the album, particularly in the haunting 'Stepping Hard', which combines symphonic refrains with sermon-like lyrics (“my tongue do speak for the meek”) and a subdued, semi-gospel chorus. This could be a nod to his own upbringing as the son of a Pentecostal preacher as well as the album’s title, which he describes as an “egocentric jest of daring to do things in the tradition of Jesus: I’m ready to bleed for the artform.” 'Crying' is another track along the same vein, reminiscent of ‘Witness’ with its reverberating vocals and a powerful choice to open the album.
Much like '4everevolution', the 2011 album that preceded it, ‘Bleeds’ can be variable. ‘Me Up’, while instantly engaging, is an echo of the earlier ‘Stepping Hard’, while ‘Fighting For’ is a disappointingly twee and slightly outdated sounding final track. ‘Don’t Breathe Out’ also skates around a predictable hip-hop formula, sampling Barry White’s ‘Honey Please, Can’t You See’, although White’s vocals are sewn into the track so evocatively with Manuva’s lyrics that the track is unexpectedly cohesive. The same cohesiveness also comes through in the relentless, blocky rhythms of the Switch-produced ‘One Thing’.
‘Bleeds’ isn’t a flawless album, but it is diverse and imaginative. As expected, Roots Manuva still manages to bring unique inventiveness to his work. With ‘Bleeds’, he manages to avoid being defined while maintaining his distinctiveness. It’s a classic Roots manoeuvre (yes!)
Words: Radhika Kapila
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