Tottenham rapper Wretch 32's new album is certainly topical ? but not much more
As riots broke out across England last week, several commentators felt moved to note the absence of a soundtrack. The pop music of 2011, it was felt, was simply not up to scratch in this regard. Comparisons were made in particular between last week's chart-topper, X Factor alumna Cher Lloyd's Swagger Jagger, and the Specials' 1981 No 1 Ghost Town. An offhand dismissal ? but the evidence against it is plentiful. Lloyd's single may not conform to a pre-conceived notion of what an appropriate riot accompaniment should be, but a good deal of British pop swirling around now feels very much relevant to these times. For example, it feels apt that Lloyd, a pop star who is routinely and disturbingly derided as a "chav" or "pikey", should be at No 1 even as the riots thrust the darkest aspects of Britain's us-vs-them social divide into full view. Even closer to home is the man whose third mainstream single was released last Sunday, and within a few hours sat at the top of the iTunes chart. The 26-year-old rapper Wretch 32, born Jermaine Scott, hails from Tottenham, the north London area where a peaceful protest against the police killing of local man Mark Duggan first descended into a spree of looting and arson.
Wretch 32 knew Duggan, who had been a few years above him at school, well; moreover, his father, a reggae DJ, took part in the Broadwater Farm riot in 1985 ? an episode of violence also triggered by the death of a black Briton, Cynthia Jarrett, while in contact with the police, and alluded to on Black and White, Wretch 32's second album proper. Poignantly, the track in question, I'm Not the Man, is a meditation on growing beyond a background shaped by disorder and unrest ? the very things that have helped shaped his music. Elsewhere, on the nervy Never Be Me, he provides some insight into what growing up as a British urban youth is like: "I never did sleep cuz I never had dreams ? I had a pair of gold sneaks that helped me run from police."
Wretch 32 would cause severe cognitive dissonance to the frothing likes of Daily Mirror journalist Paul Routledge and historian David Starkey, who engaged in a race to the bottom in the wake of the riots by pinning the blame on, respectively, "poisonous rap music" and "the whites [becoming] black". "We don't know fear, and they can't teach us ? the streets are where we clean up," he rapped in 2006: just one of many grime lyrics from the past decade that now seem prescient.
Wretch 32 always existed at the more conscious end of the spectrum, preferring reflective observations to aggressive energy ? indeed, he was never fully accepted into the grime scene as such, operating instead on the boundary between it and more straightforward, lyrically orientated hip-hop. On Black and White, he's on his best behaviour ? and oh, so sincere about it.
He's committed to his girlfriend; he's a thoughtful father; he even loves his locality so much that he won't move out ("I'm here to show hope, I don't need to showboat"). Black and White is very much on-message when it comes to addressing the concerns of British urban youth while carefully setting them a good example.
That tallies with how Wretch 32 thinks of himself: as the rapper's rapper, someone who trades on solid lyrical skills rather than flashy gimmicks ? a Nas, not a Busta Rhymes. At his best, his self-preception is justified: Long Way Home captures exactly the odd, detached feeling of travelling home completely sober late at night, outside the drunken messes that seem to exist in a bubble; the reggae lope of Breathe (Sha a La) is fondly bittersweet nostalgia in the vein of Ms Dynamite's Dy-Na-Mi-Tee and Estelle's 1980.
Too often, though, it means stolid, meat-and-potatoes rap without much thrillpower. It's been noticeable that the great UK rap breakthrough of the past few years has been a distinctly blokey affair, and testosterone also dominates Black and White, though Wretch 32 avoids macho posturing in favour of that more acceptable signifier of masculinity ? the Sensitive Guy. It's an archetype bolstered by big, chest-thumping drums, stirring string crescendoes and schmaltzy piano melodies seemingly lifted from TV-movie romantic dramas. This heavy-handed approach renders even Wretch 32's better lines somewhat empty, as though there's less at stake emotionally. Tellingly, giving his material the right tweak redeems it: the MJ Cole remix of Don't Go brings out both the urgency and the prettiness of the original, and its throwback feel is proof ? were it needed ? that the halcyon days of two-step were far more conducive to conveying emotion in pop than today's slabs of obviousness.
Wretch 32 may want to trade foremost on his lyricism, but hip-hop isn't just poetry: it's performance, too, and about the dance of the music as much as words. When these align, his is a voice that sounds vital. But while Black and White is undoubtedly a relevant album to 2011, it's not always a good one.