British rappers and producers have always taken the blueprint of hip-hop (rapping over a beat) and translated it to what is going on musically and socially in the UK. As a result, UK hip-hop frequently incorporates reggae, dub, and electronic music in ways that you rarely see in the U.S. One of the masters of this is Rodney Smith a/k/a Roots Manuva. “Bleeds,” his 9th album, continues his tradition of mixing reggae, dancehall, EDM, and hip-hop into a potent cocktail.
Smith is the son of a Pentecostal preacher, and that influence is all over “Bleeds.” Smith has stated that the album title “is an egocentric jest of daring to do things in the tradition of Jesus: I’m ready to bleed for the art form.” Much of the lyrical content on the album is concerned with how to inject the sacred and godly into the lives of the oppressed underclass:
“A whisper in the street ain’t never a secret
Nothing is for keeps when you’re trying or you’re lying
Through the second and third hand strands of illusions
Fed to the honest hard-working types
Who’s there willing to take that chance on the mic
To write a little bar and show some regard
For the ordinary hero, here and everywhere
Busy till we drop debt, machine has truly got them
The price ain’t always measured in the money
Everybody, anybody, wanna be somebody
And we all truly are as long as we see through the lies
See through the lights and realise the might That
Just might appear from the most unlikely places
Hidden in the sacred space between the thought
Hard bars from the hard ass bastards”
On “Don’t Breathe Out,” he raps:
“Keep a hold of the golden breath
Fear for nothing in life or death
Seen the scene in the pearly gates
New black Jesus we can’t wait
Kiss myself and kiss the ground
Feeling most uplifted now
Me and my God need the purest love
Known to be about what pureness does”
It is in a similar vein to Kendrick Lamar’s recent output, which is also concerned about reconciling faith and the streets. Like Kendrick, Roots Manuva mostly avoids seeming either preachy or overly hypocritical, which are the two traps that MCs trying to tackle issues of faith often fall into.
Production on the record is supplied by newcomer Fred, With You (Switch of M.I.A. fame’s new production team), Four Tet, and Adrian Sherwood. There are some clear standouts: the bouncy “Facety 2:11,” the strings-infused “Don’t Breath Out,” and slow burn of “One Thing.” However, the album is dragged down by too many slow, plodding numbers. The ragga and dance elements of his earlier work have been mostly tamped down on “Bleeds,” and in their place are drab, humorless beats. Smith’s seriousness doesn’t always translate to listenable music. It is admirable that he’s trying to address heavy topics, but he infuses the music with a heaviness that drags the album down, especially in the last half.
As disappointing as “Bleeds” is at points, it is still a Roots Manuva album. The man can weave an intricate rhyme like few others, and his message of searching for righteousness and forgiveness is one that resonates. “Learn your love and hold it unequivocal,” he raps on “Cargo.” It’s just a shame he didn’t have better beats to go with that message.