Here comes the next big hope for UK hip hop – a scene that seems to be dying before our very eyes, or at least morphing into different genres altogether. Nowadays, hip hop is something you “do” a bit of, in conjunction with dance, house, grime, rock, bhangra and R&B. Has it really run its course in Great Britain? If so, it would offer a depressingly bleak eulogy, with not one single MC combining true critical and commercial success. Not one. Damn. (Hang on, does The Streets count as hip hop?)
Hoping to change this, but of course not succeeding yet (commercially, at least), is Speech Debelle, a South London lady in her mid to late twenties. It is important to differentiate between being a critical darling – which she certainly has become, with stunning reviews for “Speech Therapy,” her debut LP, pretty much all round – and actually convincing people to buy your record. As “The Key” was an iTunes “Free Song of the Week” for the last seven days, she has had plenty of opportunity to give a massive audience a small dose of the good stuff. It is safe to say that the mass market wasn’t all too receptive, judging by the many scathing reviews left on the store. Yet building up to her album release last week, the British music press went apeshit over “Speech Therapy,” only stopping short of it single-handedly saving the global economy. Whether this was propaganda or honest appraisal, I knew not – but the lower introductory price on iTunes (£4.49, sweet!) grabbed my attention and I took a risk.
Over thirteen tracks, fifty odd minutes and a few very brief guest appearances, we really get to know about the minute details of Speech Debelle and her life thus far. She has a broken, near-defeated voice that could shatter into a thousand pieces at any point now – yet she is a wise old soul with Herculean strength and more proverbs than Sun Tzu. Her voice takes a while to get used to, but gradually you will find it meshing into the music well, especially on certain tracks.
Speaking of the music, this may well be the true star of the show. It is easy to see why the incredible sonic backdrop has taken many aback – almost exclusively live instrumentation, a real band, stunning melodies, twists and turns… Imagine A Tribe Called Quest updated with a live band and you’d get close – but it is difficult to truly compare “Speech Therapy” with other albums, as it feels in no way unique, yet completely different to everything else out there. Thank goodness it doesn’t attempt to blindly cash in on the recent Motown revivalist sound, and the vast majority of songs work incredibly well. Believe you me, there may well be a large number of green-eyed artists frantically scrambling to adjust their sound after listening to this.
The subject matter jumps all over the place, truth be told. One moment she bemoans a broken relationship, blaming herself for chasing after “good sex” on “Go Then, Bye” – the next, she is happily shagging her best friend on “Buddy Love.” We’ve got a “Cleaning Out My Closet” moment where she lays into her absent father with venom (“Daddy’s Little Girl”); then we have the infectious positivity of “The Key.” We have the standardised social commentary of “Bad Boy” – sure to end up on the next “Dadulthood” soundtrack(!); then we have one of the most beautiful open-diary tracks you might ever hear on “Searching.” Her flow is at times stunningly original, at others, worryingly amateurish. That goes for her lyrics too – occasionally she will slip in a simple but effective hip hop quotable (“I’ve got butter but I ain’t got bread” just says a thousand different things), yet sometimes her words are embarrassingly naive and staccato. When taken as a whole, though, it is clear that if you let it wash over you, you should end up really liking/loving “Speech Therapy” in at least a few different ways.
There are good, solid debut albums that make you like that artist – such as Speech Debelle. Her debut is musically brilliant – if a bit samey – and “Speech Therapy” is a definite cut above average, no doubt. But then you have classic albums that make you want to BE just like that artist, because they are, for whatever reason, so damn cool. Be it Marvin Gaye or Jay-Z, Arcade Fire or David Bowie. She just isn’t that cool. I don’t want to be like her, or truly glimpse into her world – a world that is a disparate, conflicting existence and doesn’t necessarily translate well into an enthralling listen. There is little chance that Speech Debelle is going to “save” UK hip hop, but if she can continue to crank out such wonderful efforts as “Searching” and “Finish This Album,” who really cares? All criticism aside, try not to listen too closely and “Speech Therapy” could become one of your most listened-to albums of the year.