“Live for the message, I live for the rhymes
Some watch where I’m living for the signs of the times
Hard to tell the difference between truth and lies
It seems common sense is less common than it likes
I keep asking questions, I won’t be satisfied
until they stop taking away innocent lives
War is money, yes money is nice
But money is worth less than a productive life”
Speech Debelle’s early career was in many ways the ideal example of being undone by your own success. Her debut album “Speech Therapy” won the coveted Mercury Music Prize as the best album in the UK in 2009. Not just the best rap album mind you – the best album in ANYgenre. This created unbelievably high expectations that her album would be an instantaneous mainstream success and go platinum – neither of which occurred. I don’t think that means the journalists, writers and musicians who voted for the Mercury Prize got it wrong; if anything it was proof they got it RIGHT. Her album was not an easily digestible puff of commercial fluff that dissolved the moment it was tasted aurally, and as such not the easiest to sell to a pop music audience.
Debelle hasn’t toned her words down on “Freedom of Speech” at all. She’s actually turned things up a notch or two. The song “Blaze Up a Fire” is a response to the London riots of August 2011, drawing a general comparison to the political upheaval found in Arab countries.
“Did they know not North Africa would erupt?
What they know, we don’t know, that’s how they keep it from us
So I burn a fire from the courts to the cops
Spiritual wealth is what fills my cups
I use this hip-hop to profess my love
I am not a pop star, I’m a motherfuckin thug
I’m a fiend for the truth, drugs
Gettin lean offa liberty”
Speech is joined by Realism and Roots Manuva on the track, but her quiet vocals are heard the loudest. In many ways she strikes me as a British Bahamadia – easy to underestimate because she speaks softly even though she carries a VERY big stick. Of course it’s easy to make a point but much harder to make one people want to listen to, which was why her first album was a tough sell. I think this time around people will find that her mixture of beats and rhymes is on point. Producer Kwes seems to understand how to give her the space she needs, laying back on “Shawshank Redemption” for an airy backdrop punctuated by hard rimshots. “Collapse” goes the opposite direction – she gets more aggressive and Lady of Rage-like in her delivery so he responds by giving her big drums and keys from the low end of the piano. “Better know how to react/if it all collapse” is her ominous warning to humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels and poisonous chemicals.
Given that Speech Debelle unapologetically declares herself non-commercial on “Freedom of Speech,” she may achieve the opposite effect – boosting her popularity with a disaffected youth who like her feels there’s a hypocrisy in the air in London. She’s critical of herself on songs like “Elephant in the Living Room” claiming to be “in love with my own selfishness” but that kind of honest self-appraisal tends to disprove the very notion she’s insular or insecure. She’s not above being critical and talking about “The Problem” with the world around her, but she’s also offering solutions as well “for politicians and miscreants” who are willing to listen to what she has to say. Speech lives up to her name.