From a distance, Dabbla sounds like the guy who set on the hippie trail, reached his personal paradise where he found the highest form of enlightenment and achieved the utmost level of rap mastery and now testifies to both to a global audience, or at least the followers back home who are still bound to the material plane. Upon closer inspection, Dabbla doesn’t find his inner balance that easily as he hasn’t been able to fully escape mundane constraints and human detractors.
As intended, “Death Moves” evoked kung-fu analogies from critics when it dropped last year, mainly because the UK rep raps with a tongue so swift it’s sure to leave the listener stunned. How he delivers precisely sculpted raps in a tone that wanders between nonchalance and impatience is quite an experience, and when matched by producers with proper covering fire, the master class is in session. Take “Flying”, a smoldering track that evokes sultrier conditions (my western ears pick up a vaguely subcontinental or oriental vibe in AJSwizzy’s beat), where Dabbla uses all his wisdom, wit and sarcasm to let us know he has left his worries behind.
Even so, “Death Moves” is the work of an artist who hasn’t yet all the answers – or any at all. On his journey to self, Dabbla, “just another alkaline-based [sic] lifeform (…) on the search for something I can die for”, often finds himself overwhelmed by the place he currently occupies in this world. “I don’t know what I’m doin’, never have / or how I ended up here, it’s pretty mad”, he sighs on “Learnings”, or alternatively offers, “I don’t know what I’m doin’ here and ain’t got a clue what happens next” on “Devil You Know”. But the album is not merely desperately seeking Dabbla who’s reported to be walking towards the brink of insanity, rather there’s a feeling of discouragement like listening to some stranded dropout who had his bohemian dreams shattered by reality: “I been around, I been about / I’ve seen it all / I’m cynical”.
The world is full of people who rhyme and rap with some talent. What many of them lack is an ear for music and a mouth to deliver their figments and fables over said musical accompaniment. When it comes to that impervious combination of flow, beat and rhymes that will wind its way through the convolutions of your cerebellum, Dabbla is in command over and over again. From AJSwizzy’s slapping dub for “Hemisphere” to HashFinger’s cinematographic “Same Old Me” (which sounds like a bare-bones version of the ‘Rick and Morty’ theme), Dabbla owns these beats. Only when he decides – for reasons unknown and not very evident – to take a more metrical approach to rapping (in conjunction with blander beats), his verses become less memorable. In fact “Death Moves” stalls exactly because of simply fewer things happening, first with the title track and then increasingly towards the end. Collaborations with Jam Baxter and Illaman are not particularly fruitful. “Flex”, starring singer Eva Lazarus and members of Dabbla’s erstwhile crew LDZ, sounds like a contrived music industry version of hip-hop. And then there’s the matter of Dabbla being pulled towards the D12 brand of funfair rap music, which results in entertaining songs (“Spine” moreso than the Rag’n’Bone Man-featuring “Tweeters”), but also invites Eminem comparisons.
Besides the obvious philosophical, there’s also an intellectual quality to Dabbla’s second solo album. Perhaps he has found just the right mixture of jest, attitude and reflection. Still he could have wielded his pen with more persistence. When he mentions “questions for God and Google”, that seems like a brilliant idea that wasn’t pursued. And you can’t count on our sympathy for your argument “I’m tryina be a better human / but it isn’t easy when you see right through them” when you just came off calling someone a “sweaty old vagina rag”. At the same time Dabbla thrives on the fact that he’s not easy to figure out. When he claims, “Somebody passed me a baby / I kissed it on the cheek and returned it safely”, is he a little bit surprised that the infant escaped the incident unscathed? Is he mocking politicians? Or does he see himself as a superhero blessing babies? Or take the verse “He’s on top of the world screamin’ ‘Bellissimo!’ / Standin’ in the field but the festival finished weeks ago”. Does he describe himself or someone else? Either way, it’s a wonderfully surreal moment.
Dabbla is a character that defies characterization. If we had to, he’s a global citizen communicating in the universal language of rap who cares about humanity but not necessarily what humans think of him, a searching mind whose songs are a wild cocktail of self-doubt and cockiness: “I been lookin’ burnt out, but I hold the torch”.