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Freedom of Speech
[Big Dada; 02/21/2012]
Speech Blazes Up A Fire
Speech Debelle has an interesting relationship with her public. She won the Mercury Prize for her 2009 debut album, but subsequent sales were notoriously low. She released an incendiary track for free in the wake of the 2011 riots in England, but a reworked version of her song “Spinnin” will be one of the official songs of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Because she insists on being an individual, certain contradictions and ambiguities crop up. But her sophomore album Freedom of Speech should help to clarify things. On “Blaze Up A Fire,” the track she originally released for free, she avers: “I’m not a pop star/I’m a motherfucking thug.” There you are. This is not pop. This also is not grime. And it sure isn’t performance poetry, as some reviewers suggested about her first album. It’s just hip hop. And while it is to hip hop, and hip hop alone, that Debelle pledges her allegiance, she’s refreshingly unconcerned with conforming to rap world expectations. Manifestly confident in her abilities and creative choices, Speech’s second album finds her focused on the present and the future.
This album might sell better than the last one. She’s sounding tougher, wiser, tempered. She’s not rhyming much about past pain and struggle. The convulsions of youth behind her, it’s time for taking stock and taking responsibility. It’s not just in the lyrics, it’s in the tone of her voice, her flow. Everything has put on weight, filled out. Of course, some of that is thanks to her excellent producer Kwes — who beefed up and diversified the sound significantly with hefty beats and rich analog sounds. On the grim peak-oil prophecy of “Collapse” fuzzed out guitars and rumbling piano keys tap into rock ‘n’ roll menace, but the acoustic finger picking on “Angel Wings” keys into “singer-songwriter.”
The more personal tracks are tough-minded reckonings. “Shawshank” and “X Marks the Spot” are hard romantic depositions. Like Psalm One and Jean Grae, Speech Debelle is very comfortable telling stories about her own life and human relationships. But this album is also animated by a certain moral fire and social awareness. It burns through the personal and the political alike and doesn’t leave her unscathed. She calls herself out for both her relationship mistakes and her carbon footprint. Now that’s a grown-up.
What makes this a truly great hip hop album is that her words, piling up on one another, take on the quality of incantations — and that those incantations take on a life of their own. At a certain point, they ignite. And the spark stays in the mind long after your headphones fall silent.