Rating: 6 / Format: CD / Label: Dirtee Stank
Dizzee Rascal is surely one of the only artists in the history of pop who jumped free of his major label constraints and set up his own indie label – in order to veer in a shamelessly cheesy, commercial direction. It worked: the boy in the corner is now the biggest man in British pop, someone who reliably churns out No 1 hits at will – and who has paved the path for five of the last 16 UK chart-toppers to have been made by UK rappers, an unthinkable scenario just half a decade ago.
At what price? No one should be surprised by the arc of Dizzee Rascal’s career – or that Tinchy Stryder and Chipmunk were so ready to follow him into the mainstream. Most grime MCs made no secret of how their hunger for success drove them, with all that entails. Moreover, Dizzee’s pop instincts have always been crucial to his work, and failing to appreciate how they have rubbed up and coexisted with his awkwardness and aggression is to misunderstand his greatness.
What this means is that we should be able to expect Dizzee, of all people, to successfully navigate the compromise between grime and pop without diluting either. On the evidence of Tongue n’ Cheek‘s three lead singles, it looked like he had failed. Two involved possibly the worst producer in pop music right now, that worthless hack Calvin Harris: this pound-shop James Murphy’s cheerlessly cheesy electro is hideous on every level, his damply enervated vocals even worse and the levels of his popularity utterly baffling. He cheapens every enterprise with which he is involved, and Dizzee should delete his number right fucking now. Meanwhile, a Dizzee/Armand Van Helden collaboration which, by rights, should have been a monster was scuppered by the laziness of all involved: ‘Bonkers’ marries a tediously grinding Justicesque beat to one subpar Dizzee verse, repeated three times. It’s like they got halfway to the best track ever, then got bored.
In this context, Tongue n’ Cheek is something of a relief: past the singles, it’s a frequently brilliant album which establishes Dizzee Rascal as a pop star on his own terms. ‘Freaky Freaky’ is cheerfully lustful: sex in pop is so often used as a weapon in an endless power game that Dizzee’s pure enjoyment of it feels somewhat innocent, a kid let loose in a sweet shop. Gentlemanly, too, what with the line "I’ll do anything you want me to" – a far cry from Boy in da Corner‘s "don’t bow cat, I don’t like the smell" – and the endearing reminder to practice safe sex.
"Tongue n’ Cheek is far from Dizzee’s Blueprint. But it gives every indication that a pop album of that quality is possible."
Throughout, Tongue n’ Cheek maintains its impressive dedication to good times. It’s almost entirely bereft of emo moments; instead, it finds Dizzee and his mates living it up in London and Ibiza, painting the town red and generally having a ball before chilling out at someone’s flat in front of the Playstation. Its best moments are when he goes full-bore at it. The astonishingly rambunctious ‘Road Rage’ is Exhibit A against the charge that Dizzee’s toned down his aggression for the mainstream. Imagine ‘Pussyole’ amped up by 100, its old-skool sample replaced by bone-juddering, forward-thrusting beats’n’bass, and with Dizzee making car noises in between threats of violence. It’s macho and lairy, and Dizzee gets away with this because he’s so damn hilarious.
At the other end of the album is ‘Bad Behaviour’ – Tiësto-produced, just in case Dizzee’s commercial intentions weren’t totally clear by this stage. It’s also the best original beat on the album, widescreen stadium synths ushering in big dirty stinking bass and sirens spiralling up and down and all around: the perfect backdrop to get Dizzee "running round the place like Kriss Akabusi", is cartoon fantasies getting more and more surreal: "I want a two-way mirror with a midget behind it/And a hidden camera, so nobody can find it."
The album’s highlight, though, is ‘Dirtee Cash’. Over a straightforward lift of Stevie V’s classic, Dizzee casually captures the zeitgeist of 2009 with a recession anthem that encapsulates West End street life as evocatively as he once narrated East End street life. Subverting the traditional hip-hop concept of "dirty money", Dizzee sketches a picture of drunken office workers "spending money that they ain’t made yet", but it’s less tut-tutting than an ironic jibe: Dizzee understands and perfectly conveys the heady whirlwind rush of celebrity and consumerism in the galloping pace of his rhymes, barrelling blindly along to oblivion. After all, it’s a tale of aspiration at heart; and isn’t that the story Dizzee Rascal’s been telling us all decade?
Comparisons to another artist who moved from lyrical, thoughtful reflections on street existence to some of the greatest crossover pop anthems of his generation seem increasingly appropriate. Dizzee Rascal will never make another Boy In Da Corner, just as Jay-Z will never make another Reasonable Doubt; just as Jay-Z broke through with gimmicky Annie samples ("Hard Knock Life": first top 15 hit in the US, first top 10 hit in the UK, and as insufferably annoying as ever), so the process of establishing Dizzee at the top of the charts will involve a few moments of wincing and turning away. But both know that crossing over to the mainstream should not be about limiting oneself; instead, it’s an opportunity to prove himself commercially and artistically. Tongue n’ Cheek is far from Dizzee’s Blueprint. But it gives every indication that a pop album of that quality is possible.