There's a reason Dizzee Rascal's debut beat out Radiohead, Coldplay, The Darkness and others to win the Mercury Music Prize last summer. It won because it's the sound of British hip-hop being born as a distinct genre, completely separate from the American strain. Where others
have merely hinted at that evolution, Boy In Da Corner
is a bold proclamation.
Admittedly, it's entirely possible the genre is comprised solely of Dizzee. After all, the thing that makes him such a unique talent is his delivery -- a sort of yelping hiccup that sounds like he's trying to suck his words back in as he spits them out. Even if other British youths wanted to emulate him (which is doubtful, given the tendency of many Britons to value their hip-hop based on how closely it sticks to its Americanisms), it's hard to imagine that many, if any, could.
The voice, however, is only half of Boy In Da Corner's appeal. Throughout the album, Dizzee demonstrates a willingness to use a far broader variety of beats and backing music than you'll find in typical hip-hop fare. "Fix Up, Look Sharp", for example, samples a Billy Squier drum loop, and accordingly sounds like an eighties-style stadium rock tune, while "Jus A Rascal" is based on metal riffing. Other sources of beat-inspiration include a telephone operator's recorded message ("Live O"), strange, dissonant chimes ("Brand New Day"), and, for lack of a better description, a PlayStation blowing itself up ("I Luv U"). In each case, Dizzee is supremely confident in his abilities, letting the beats set the tempo for his rhymes, but never allowing them to overshadow what he has to say.
And what does he have to say? Sometimes it's the sort of chest-beating self-promotion that's as old as the genre itself -- but even then, Dizzee does it in a distinctly British way (as he says in "Fix Up, Look Sharp", "Flushing MCs down the loo / If you don't believe me bring your posse, bring your crew"). Mostly, though, Boy In Da Corner is about the British streets -- not in the gangsta glam sense of the words, but in a harsh, unnerving way that makes it all live up to the "Grime" tag some have applied to the subsection of British garage from which Dizzee comes. In some cases, this means songs that deal with sex in a way that most American MCs would avoid -- "I Luv U" is based on Dizzee's experience of getting a girl pregnant at 15 (which in turn likely plays a role in "Jezebel", about girls who mistake attention from the opposite sex for love), while "Round We Go" deals with bed-hopping from affair to affair. In other tracks, Dizzee deals with the violence that pervades some of London's less attractive areas. As he says in the spooky "Sitting Here", over the sounds of sirens and gunshots, "It's the same old story, students truant, learn the streets fluent / Yeah it's the same old story, strange, there's no sign of positive change".
Clearly, Dizzee Rascal and his more street-minded American counterparts share some culture -- but while many American gangstas have tried to fit their experiences into the established genre template, Dizzee has gone beyond thug posturing to create an album that deserves every bit of hype sent its way. If Boy In Da Corner marks the beginning of distinctly British hip-hop, the genre's standards are already impressively high.