In July 2008, Dizzee Rascal released the single Dance Wiv Me. It was both the biggest hit of his career to date and the sound of a man exasperatedly throwing in the towel, abandoning grime in a craven bid for commercial success. But who could blame him? His records had sold respectably, but not in a way that reflected the level of excitement caused by 2003’s Boy in Da Corner, the debut album that brought London’s grime scene into the mainstream’s consciousness. From now on, Dizzee Rascal would make music for lads’ fortnights in Shagaluf, the kind of records that play in provincial city centre bars while patrons tuck into the two-for-one Jägerbombs.
And so would a lot of his peers. One by one, grime MCs from Tinchy Stryder to Skepta took the same pop-rap route. If they’d all been as successful as him, perhaps they’d still be at it now, but in 2014, while Dizzee Rascal was still promoting an album that featured collaborations with Jessie J and Robbie Williams, Skepta put out his pop-repudiating, back-to-basics track That’s Not Me – one of a handful of singles that marked the unexpected commercial renaissance of the music Dizzee Rascal had pioneered.
The question of how to reassert himself in a pop world in which the genre he left for dead a decade ago is now huge has clearly given Dizzee Rascal pause. He would doubtless claim that the vision of a ruined career on one of Raskit’s standout tracks, Wot U Gonna Do?, is aimed at his competitors. But there’s an urgency about the delivery that suggests reaching a point “when your fans don’t care because they’ve all grown up and all moved on” might have kept its author awake at night, too.
Under the circumstances, the obvious thing to do would be to make a Boy in Da Corner redux, as if to remind everyone who was there first. Instead, Raskit is a sparse hip-hop album that attempts to re-establish Rascal not as a pioneer of grime but simply as a superior MC to his peers and followers.
There are some intriguing production touches: the mesh of synth lines that forms opener Focus; producer Dan Farber’s bizarre sample library, which, on Ghost, extends to the band of the Israeli Marine Corp. But for the most part, the music on Raskit is there to throw the vocals into stark relief. Nothing is allowed to get in the way of them: there are barked hooks but no big choruses, and not much in the way of melodies.
It’s an audacious move that pays off. The musical jolt delivered by Boy in da Corner and the unabashed commercialism of his later work each obscured how good a lyricist and rapper Rascal is, but here it is inescapable. His flow is relentless and dextrous (there’s a particularly torrential demonstration of his skills on the verses of Space) while the lyrics are nuanced, funny and fascinating. Picturing what might have happened had the internecine rivalries of the early Noughties grime scene resulted in his death, he imagines himself “six foot deep, on my bredrin’s T-shirt, looking distasteful”. There’s something about that “distasteful” that raises a grin, whether it refers to the sour-faced expression his posthumous image sports, or the naffness of the garment bearing it.
There’s a sense in which Raskit is the negative image of Skepta’s Konnichiwa, an album bathed in nostalgia for the early grime scene. There’s a lot of reminiscing here, but while you’re never far from a stern reminder of Rascal’s pivotal role in what happened (“Why they talking like I never made bare grime?”), Raskit focuses on the bleakness of the world that grime came from, the violence and chaos that surrounded the scene. Make It Last depicts a teenage Dizzee terrified by a night out at Camberwell’s long-gone Imperial Gardens nightclub (“All I see is shooters, it’s about to be a mess”) while in Bop N Keep It Dippin’ he remembers looking on while a friend pointlessly stabs the manager of a local takeaway.
There’s a thematic unity with his debut album, which dealt in stark reportage – there was nothing aspirational about the world it drew – and where every attempt at tough-guy swagger was undercut by the detectable hint of panic in Rascal’s voice, like a man who’d been cornered trying to brazen his way out of trouble.
For all his assertions that things have changed since the days when he was “running round the manor like a hooligan”, a hint of his famed recklessness remains. Virtually everyone who isn’t Dizzee Rascal gets it in the neck, from the Tories on Everything Must Go, to old mentor turned adversary Wiley – who seems to have incurred Rascal’s wrath by trying to patch things up between them – to grime’s current crop of stars: “Too big for my boots, that’s the truth, no excuse for you new recruits, bunch of dilutes and a few flukes”.
This seems a pretty risky move, but then, from its sparse sound to its defiantly un-nostalgic view of the past, Raskit is a risky album. Luckily for the man who made it, he has the skills to make the risk pay off handsomely.