Perhaps people don’t understand, so let me explain. In hip-hop (at least in the company that I keep) we don’t look down on or look up to rappers because of their background, we look down on rappers when they’re lousy and we look up to them (or at least respect them) when they’re really good. So you can’t possibly stun me or shock me with the number of bedrooms in your mansion or the number of bedbugs in your matress. What counts is what you make out of the material. The tapestry that you weave from these threads.
To cut to the chase, there’s a segment of the UK hip-hop population that likes to pose as depraved derelicts. Which is not bothersome as such, it’s just another image people like to project, similar to the madman, the drug dealer, the depressive, the gangster, the intellectual, the player, the junkie, the weirdo, the nympho, etc. It’s not necessary to try to prove you are these things, what matters is how you let it inform your work. Simple say-so won’t cut it. Displaying smug attitude without artistic value is only disrespectful to the general listenership, that’s all.
Bristol rapper Datkid isn’t particularly eager to escape that pigeonhole. He introduces himself on the unapologetic “Fire in My Belly” with the warning “Wear my heart on my sleeve / No filter when I speak” and tries to act accordingly. At this point you might perceive him as a snot-nosed variant of North-American cousins with roots in skill-driven street rap (M.O.P., RA The Rugged Man, Blaq Poet, Slaine, etc.), regurgitating familiar sounding put-downs like “You’re on some yes-man s–t / Won’t let go of one before you’re holdin’ the next man’s dick”.
However, the issue seems to run deeper. On “Myth”, he sounds like one of those males who think they have to defend patriarchy and the privileges that come with it. “If you ain’t lookin’ in my eyes I’m probably lookin’ at your breast / Red-blooded male, ain’t many of ’em left” is the level Datkid is able to stoop to. I see a second career as a life coach for men confused about their role in society reciting chest-thumping lines off this album like “Ambition of a wild animal, I got the hunger / They scared of me takin’ over, cause I’m under”.
It would of course be highly hypocritical to condemn Datkid for his content after this review’s opening paragraph. There’s no need to tell him that he’s out of touch with the times, he knows it and he’s proud of it. But he also argues for his attitude. We may not be talking about utter despair and destitution here, but what motivates an artist like this is a certain shittiness to it all. Datkid is really just trying to get by, and when he articulates the various ways to do so (for example getting high himself or helping others get high), he not only often paints a vivid picture in the process, he also injects himself into said picture: “People come to Bris’ to sight-see / but don’t see the sights that I see / They avoid me when they eye me / That’s probably for the best…”
And so step by step the Datkid character takes on a more multidimensional shape. He’s trying to come across as a smooth criminal, but he’s just as quick to throw caution to the wind, telling himself, “I just stick to truth / Why not? / They got my prints anyway”. Or he gives in to fatalism: “I might as well do evil the way I’m gettin’ the blame”. Either way he has given the whole making ends meet thing a fair amount of thought: “I believe everything is mine for the takin’ / So is it really stealin’ if it’s mine what I’m takin’?”
Leaf Dog and Datkid make music devoid of contemporary influences yet are fully aware of overseas contemporaries with similar interests and are confident enough to seek their companionship. They are wise enough to spread out the Roc Marciano, Westside Gunn and Conway The Machine features across three different tracks, and while it’s a typical situation where rappers may feel they have to prove themselves to each other, Datkid quickly retrieves his survival instincts from the alleged criminal past, engaging in familiar ‘If this rap s–t don’t work…’ musings with Roc Marci on “Scheme On” or holding his own in the unlikely Buffalo/Bristol connection taking place over Leaf’s sneaky beat for “Briefcase”:
“I came up in council houses
where families are poundless and crime’s all around us
Still in the gutter, where ya found us
Runners and counters surround us
Drugs and money in our trousers”
It’s rare these days for a hip-hop record to sample and namecheck Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Accordingly, Datkid takes a charmingly chaotic approach to what he does. Leaf Dog lends his support behind the boards (and occasionally on the mic) with relatively basic beats that are typically a bit off their axis, generally moody and gloomy, a few needle scratches and vinyl crackles atop unplugged instruments in economical arrangements. You could probably call it budget boom bap if it’s also done without samples (that’s what one lyric seems to suggest), and indeed it doesn’t sound particularly exqusite overall. Still the unassuming music is most definitely part of the style. Datkid & Leaf Dog operate not with British understatement but with being underestimated. Freshness emerges from filth, wisdom from misery. Datkid is more than a rhyming talent. Although the only of its kind, “Grown Up” recalls Ghostface and G Rap at their storytelling best. While “Blank Page” and “Lord Give Me Patience” are introspective, lyrical efforts that bridge the gap between rapper and listener.
As far as the old question goes what kind of role UK rappers (or Australians, for that matter) could play in US rap, Datkid would at the very least be a welcome reinforcement for the dwindling guild of grimy rap wordsmiths:
“Narcotics under my nails, bare dust on the scales
Livin’ like I’m tryina end up dead, broke or in jail
Your little tales are startin’ to go stale
Yo, my s–t’s real like no bail
Fortune on my horizon, karma on my trail”
(“Lord Give Me Patience”)