In a move you would expect from a liberal, sensitive artist who’s hyper-mindful of his place in the world of music, Ocean Wisdom lists the people that inspired the writing and recording of “Big Talk – Vol. 1”. Among the names is Loyle Carner, a rap artist who seems perfectly at ease discussing mostly family-and-friends matters in a comforting tone. Which is a little bit irritating because Ocean Wisdom and Loyle Carner seem like polar opposites. Carner, eager to share his thoughts, tends to sabotage that pure rush that the medium through which he expresses himself is known to provide. Wisdom, on the face of it, goes wrong in the exact opposite direction.
All style, no substance, then? The fact is that “Big Talk – Vol. 1” is not an album that you’re immediately going to pry open for in-depth analysis, you’d rather blast it straight away for a while (albeit perhaps not for the entire close to 80 minutes). The way it comes at you, you’re the one doing the defensive work, not the other way around. Several tracks start off in the manner of contemprary tunes where vocalists warm up to their performance with mutterings, but sooner or later Wiz unleashes his trademark staccato. Thus the 20-track collection delivers what listeners can expect going into an Ocean Wisdom album – jaw-dropping performances that would probably produce quite a fe jaw-locking incidents if competition tried this at home.
“Big Talk” was Ocean Wisdom’s first release on his own label after two albums with High Focus Records, a major player in modern UK hip-hop. Each time so far, the young rapper was able to enlist notable sparring partners, such as scene mainstays Klashnekoff, Foreign Beggars, Rodney P, Jehst, Chester P and Roots Manuva, but also US heavyweight Method Man and grime superstar Dizzee Rascal. Dizzee also joins the proceedings here, for the top-level meeting “Blessed”. But as far as co-signs go, the omnipresent Ghetts hits the nail on the head with his line “I don’t fuck with Smartwater, I fuck with Ocean Wisdom” (adding, in accord with the imagery, “Don’t try ridin’ my wave, boy, you’ll get motion sickness”).
Each Ocean Wisdom album has been a technical show of force. It’s his modus operandi. Such proficiency would be a more than solid foundation to build upon, to mount something of wider impact, greater meaning, etc. There are moments when the Brighton wunderkind recalls bigger names from the rap canon. Busta Rhymes has made monumental albums with a very dominant presence. Tech N9ne uses his multi-functional skill set to tackle a variety of subject matter from different angles. Pharoahe Monch’s marriage of technical, intellectual and emotional elements still puts him ahead of virtually everybody. Big Pun was the last rap superhero. Black Thought did all of the above with a band in tow. Throughout, “Big Talk” evokes flattering comparisons, including geographically more remote ones such as E-40, Bun B, or even Brotha Lynch Hung. And yet…
2019 Ocean Wisdom was not quite there yet. There’s precision, but not necessarily finesse. Sure, when he wants to “annihilate the beat”, he touches upon any rhyme animal’s primordial instinct. There is, quite obviously, not nearly enough of that around these days. But all that effort. Just to prove yourself?
With his dogged focus to humiliate haters and conquer competition (which literally lasts until the very last line), Wizzy creates some seriously juvenile moments. He takes your money, your lady, your pride. The standard scenario of an Ocean Wisdom battle rap is that someone is talking shit until they get shut up either by threats or actions. Decide for yourself how captivating that is over the course of several tracks. Ocean Wisdom could be Logic without the agonizing moments, but his Achilles heel is just as apparent. The approach to the artform that you witness here is hypnotizing in a not entirely good way. It’s virtuosity for its own sake and and for the artist’s assurance that he’s outrunning competition in what is essentially a hamster wheel.
Combing “Big Talk” for moments of reflections is not fruitless, however. Even in the most tiresome tracks you’ll suddenly come across something enlightening like “Neil Armstrong never went space, huh? / Earth flat, reptilian face, huh? / Nonsense / Man roll round there and just spray stuff”. “Investments” and “Munidance” offer more extended philosophical musings while “Voices in My Head” meticulously tracks how the artist learned to channel frustration and anger into creativity. “Didn’t kill ’em dead, I killed the music thing instead”, he sums up the do-or-die situation he got himself out of. If we want to be specific, there’s rarely been a song that expressed itself so coherently on one of rap music’s most fundamental mechanisms – frustrated, alienated young people going from negative to positive. Just don’t mistake ‘positive’ for forthcoming and optimistic, because the very point for someone like Ocean Wisdom is that he could directly translate his grudges to the language of rap. He actually mentions being “a positive and optimistic youth” once. But attitudes change.
Yet while “Vol. 1” is frequently engulfed in darkness (the dark humor trumping the depressing thoughts, though), the playfulness ultimately prevails. There’s often a quirky touch to the tracks, whether they incorporate trap/grime/drill elements or reference the rumbling ragpicker sound of underground UK hip-hop. “Isn’t It?” manages that both the host and his guest Freddie Gibbs are in their element. There’s even a collaboration with Fatboy Slim, the man who took sampling made in Britain to the global stage, for Ocean a welcome opportunity to give in to his goofier instincts.
He has a natural sense for rhymes and how to use them both as a writer and as a performer (Consider: “Man’s not a regular guy / got a devilish side”) and a rare talent to interact with rhythms, all the while remaining lean, clear and precise. As some verses focus on tempo, others on rhyme schemes, others on content, the next level would be to combine it all, like he sometimes welds rap and trap flows (“No Respect”, “Mr Fix It”).
In the end, Ocean Wisdom raps too damn much to release projects this long. But there’s a stubbornness hard at work here that has taken him far.