I hate to begin a review with such a sweeping statement, but it has to be said. Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in da Corner should do for British hip-hop what the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die did for East Coast hip-hop. It’s a standard-bearer that should instill pride in the denizens of East London, the region that Dizzee Rascal calls home, just as Biggie’s first album does for Brooklyn natives like myself. This assertion isn’t meant to imply that Dizzee is just as good as Biggie because he isn’t…yet. Dizzee lacks Biggie’s command of simile, metaphor, and internal rhyme, the kind of linguistic panache that suggests he could write a hundred-page novella as easily as he could a forty-eight-bar flow. However, Dizzee displays enough potential on Boy in da Corner to convince me that within an album or two, he will. Until then, there are enough artistic similarities between the two MCs to explain how this album could have as much of an impact on the genre as Ready to Diedid ten years ago. Dizzee and Biggie cover the same topics with the same conflicted and contradictory mindset, the same provincial devotion to their neighborhoods, and the same fetish for utterly, completely SICK beats.
Dizzee’s lyrics position himself simultaneously as an observer and a
participant in the criminal life; “a problem for Antony Blair,” as he boasts on “Hold Ya Mouf.” By the time that album opener “Sittin’ Here” ends, the cycle of poverty and violence that his life is stuck in has left him so emotionally numb that all he can do is sit, stare, and wonder what happened. The next song, “Stop Dat,” is a paean to “screw face,” Dizzee’s slang term for extreme misanthropy. In “Brand New Day,” he openly ponders whether he and his friends will be able to grow out of the gang violence of their youth before it kills them first. “2 For” is a deceptively profound screed against authority figures. Dizzee disobeys the police not necessarily because they stop him from satisfying his own desires through illegal means, but because “they forget they’re human and get excited quickly.” Especially in this post-Rodney King climate, this is definitely a more sober outlook on the situation than, say, NWA’s “F**k tha Police” could muster. Two songs later, though, Dizzee is caught up in the same violence he wishes to outgrow: “Kick off your door, I ain’t got a 44/I’ll have to settle for a long metal bar” (“Cut ‘em Off”). He ends the album on an optimistic note with the song “Do It,” whose hook is one long pep talk to himself. “The end of the night will be the day,” he assures himself, “so just pray that you see it.”
Unfortunately, Dizzee’s lyrics also display a voracious sexual appetite, minus any sort of personal responsibility for the consequences of his exploits. This makes him not only similar to Biggie, but also to the majority of lyricists in mainstream hip-hop. “I Luv U,” recorded when Dizzee was only sixteen, finds him on one hand dismissing a pregnant girl as a whore out to get his money, on the other hand bragging about his prowess with the ladies. This sums up his general attitude towards women quite nicely, with only two instances in which he backs away from easy misogyny. The first verse of “Round We Go” is a third-person chronicle a series of breakups and love triangles, but just when things are about to get truly interesting, Dizzee goes back to standard first-person sexual braggadocio. The main character of the unsurprisingly named “Jezebel” is a teenage single mother “wishing she could take it back to the old school and make better choices.” This lapse into moral judgment would be more convincing if the first three minutes of the song weren’t spent gleefully discussing what a slut she was. Although grown folks know that sex is a two-way street, at no point on Boy in da Corner are the men implicated in any way for sleeping with these allegedly loose, greedy women. However, we can’t really expect a nineteen-year-old man to have a clear perspective on these things.
In fact, Dizzee’s youth is one of the three things that make him so much more than just a British Biggie. Whereas Biggie truly sounded like a man-child who grew up way too fast, the youthful exuberance in Dizzee’s crackly, high-pitched voice proves his claims of forced rapid maturity a bit false. On “2 For,” he imitates the chastisement of his fitness instructor (“It’s time for some exercise…Shut up! No more cussing”) in the same chipmunk voice that pimply geeks will use to tease their teachers once high school begins later on this month. On “Seems 2 Be,” he even boasts, “I smoke weed ‘til my mum finds out.” These brief bursts of levity don’t seem to come from the same guy who seems hell-bent on f**king and fighting himself into utter oblivion. The second distinctive trait of Dizzee’s music is his fondness for extended rhyme schemes. He often spends entire songs rhyming in limericks or AAAB rhyme schemes. The final thing that puts Dizzee in a class of his own is his beats; he produced or co-produced every single track on this record. His sound is a blend of two-step, gamelan, and dub that would sit well with Missy Elliott fans, yet is still a bit too dissonant and harsh to gain serious radio air play. The electric guitars and operatic singing on “Jus’ a Rascal” make it sound like a lost Eminem track, and the fast-paced internal rhyme that Dizzee lays on top only cement such an impression.
Boy in da Corner announces the arrival of a major talent who hasn’t even close to realizing his full potential, yet still stomps the living crap out of almost everyone who came before him (especially all that So Solid shite). Unfortunately, both Biggie and Dizzee blur the line between art and life, forcing their fans to consider which is imitating which. Shortly after this record was released in England, a member of a rival rap group allegedly stabbed Dizzee. Although Dizzee seems to be recovering from the injury, there is still fear that the ghosts of his past won’t allow him to live long enough to see the brighter future he rhymes about in “Do It.” Cherish this album now that it’s here, and pray that Dizzee will be able to make many, many more.