Tuesday, September 8, 2009

#114, 'Shame that kid probably ain't yours'

Dizzee Rascal "I Luv U"

The biggest asset a younger performer, at least one who isn't specifically guided for pop success, is that there's more vigor to their performance. Enthusiasm, energy, whatever you want to call it, it's something that no studio-preened act of any age can mimic to any degree of accuracy. You can't fake the kind of fire that an 18 year old has when he's finally getting his big break, finally making a mark no matter how small and having fun doing it. Part of the joy, however fleeting it may have been, of Dizzee Rascal's debut Boy in Da Corner was that aside from the charisma and skill he brought to the songs, two qualities he's carried over to his later stuff as well, he was also at his most infectiously enthusiastic. Even the bad songs there just came to life with the sort of youthful energy that can't be faked, it was unmistakably an album made by a kid having the time of his life recording it. Without the aforementioned charisma and skill it would have been a fun novelty and nothing more, and while I never found it to be a great album on the whole I can't deny that it had a lot going for it.

The things that it's break out single "I Luv U" has going for it are much more consistently enjoyable though. It's not just Rascal's youthful energy that elevated the track from its surroundings, hell it's not even the amazingly dirty beat that producer Wiley laid down for Rascal to work over, but the synthesis of both those elements with lyrics that extended beyond the usual material of Boy. The biggest liability that Rascal had at this stage was that in spite of his energy he was pretty one-note as a lyricist. The joys of his performance couldn't cloud the fact that most of the tracks were strictly centered on some tired braggadocio and a killer beat. "I Luv U," while still containing a fair bit of Rascal's self-aggrandizement in the last verse had much more to it than that.

A lot of the notices the song got initially were focused on the first verse, where then 18 year old Rascal chastises a friend for knocking up a fifteen year old. It's a fair ways removed form what many thought teenaged performers would sing about, even in a more mature genre, so it took away a lot of attention from the craft of that verse and the subsequent one. You'd think that two verses with as rudimentary a rhyme scheme as the A-A-A-A-etc. would be fairly boring, but that's where Rascal's charisma and energy comes in. The way he fires off those verses is somewhat exhilarating, so much so that it's easy to just plain not notice that he's going 8 or 16 lines without changing the last syllable of the line, and really if you think about it going for that long of a stretch on one ending syllable is commendable in its own right given that the last word that comes to mind in describing the verses is 'lazy.'

Still, I save the majority of my praise for the chorus. The he-said/she-said trope is used with enough frequency that it borders on cliche, but it works here for a variety of reasons. The first is that it's an unexpected addition. None of the versions I've seen even credit Shystie as a featured artist on the track, so her entrance is a bit of a surprise the first time through at least. The most important thing that makes it work here is the excellent use of parallelism. The most common hs/ss songs focus more on the battle of the sexes as a constant game of tripping of the other guy, responding to each line with either a refutation or a zinger. Rascal and Shystie engagin this sort of mano-a-womano sparring in the second half, but at first they present themselves as suffering from the same problems with reversed genders. Their two verses aren't exactly word for word repetitions of each other, but both verses get to the same point which sets up the fireworks in the last half of the chorus.

When it gets to the sparring section the parallelism doesn't go away either. The structure of it's a bit more familiar but each of them gets to go on the attack and the defensive in some order with respect to their affairs, and both respond to the most potentially damaging jab with an awesomely nonchalant pair of 'oh well's. The key to the structure here is that neither seems keen to let the other finish their lines before they get their rebuttal in. They aren't tripping over each other's lines at all, just giving the impression that this isn't the first time someone's gone at either of them with these particular tidbits and they know what to expect before the thoughts are finished. This may be the first time we've heard this argument but they both seem weary of going on the defensive for their part because they've already been through it enough. The 'oh well's serve that purpose just as well, but the tone of their defenses across the board conveys more 'this shit again?' than the assumed tone of 'you're one to talk.'

The production that anchors all this is a bit dated already, hearkening back the days where people were holding up UK Garage as the next wave in hip hop music (oh 2002-3, such simpler times those were,) but in this case the grittiness of the track works well in conjunction with Rascal's voice and the seedier than usual subject matter. Once again though, it's the chorus where it really shines, at first adding a discordant string-ish sample that overtakes the buzzing synths of the rest of the track then letting this give way to a bouncy synth part that plays as Rascal and Shystie begin their trade-offs, adding to the feeling of that section as a game of verbal ping pong. The main part's buzzing menace is effective but can't quite compare to the adornments Wiley sticks to the chorus sections.

The thing is, even though the chorus is where the best stuff is contained on both a lyrical and production level, the song as a whole leaves a lasting impression well beyond that. Sure when I think of this one the part that springs to mind first is the last part of the chorus, but the rest of teh song isn't far behind. The combination of Rascal's self-assuredness and Wiley's instantly recognizable production is best exemplified in the chorus, but it's there every step of the song and neither one has managed to get close to that level again.

Coming up tomorrow: The decade's whiniest band break format to grand effect.

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