Two years ago, Essex rapper Devlin released his debut effort Bud, Sweat & Beers, a record that – amongst over things – featured contributions from a pre-Olympics Emeli Sandé. There was a sense of curatorship to the record – Devlin overseeing the careers of talented vocalists on the up (Labrinth played a starring role on the album’s third single Let It Go). But beyond that, more than any other album released that year, Bud, Sweat & Beers felt like an accurate portrait of London in the 21st century – a tantalisingly real electronic tapestry of city streets alive with the hum of traffic and the adrenaline of a generation lost in a media-obsessed world that offered as many social ills as it did pleasures.
Crucially, Devlin always felt like his own artist, with his own sonic template. Fast forward to 2013 though, and sophomore effort A Moving Picture sees Devlin erring worryingly close to sounding like a poor man’s Plan B. Promising a more ‘filmic’ sound, the LP ultimately ends up playing the role of the unnecessary Hollywood remake of a cherished indie classic.
Ed Sheeran duet Watchtower – a reworking of the Dylan track – feels lazy, a sales grabbing ‘’feat. [insert mega-successful artist here]’’ attempt that places Devlin as a spare wheel within his own album. Sure, the song may have sailed up the charts to become his first Top 10 hit – but at what price? Gone is all the stark, clinical soundscaping of his debut – replaced by a quickly-tedious looped sample and well-oiled for-radio production values.
In terms of the big-bucks collaborations, Wretch 32 workout Off With Their Heads fares much better; riding an arabesque string section, Devlin’s raps coming frenetic, breathless, on-edge. Here at least, the album recaptures some of the almost-violent vitality Devlin’s debut managed to bottle away, a more palpable enthusiasm spilling from his delivery.
Rewind stands as the strongest cut from the record by far – but the trouble is that it doesn’t really feel like a Devlin track, effectively amounting to a Dianne Birch melody with Devlin rapping over the top of it. Great hooks are important, but when they completely subsume and overpower the rap element of the track, it begs the question – what exactly are the public coming to the song for? Just as they did with Professor Green’s Read All About it, producers TMS work their magic here – but the song stands apart from the album, unrepresentative of most of what’s offered.
The rest of the LP comes across as a hotchpotch hit and miss spread of what largely amounts to filler, ranging from the snooze-inducing Ghost Ship and Mother’s Son to the more optimistic brass-fuelled Letter To My Boys, which sees Devlin taking a page from the Rizzle Kicks school of thought. Love Cards is encouraging too, a fizzing synth-grind of a number that throws in a hypnotic vocal from sometime Wretch 32-collaborator Etta Bond. Plus, anyone who can deliver a line like ‘’call me Voldemort, a bad wizard, I just want to give a witch a wand…’’ and for it to not sound like the world’s worst Carry On movie deserves credit. But even moments like these feel barely above average at best – and all the swollen orchestration in the world can offer little further polish.
Devlin’s talents as both lyricist and rapper are never in doubt, but for all the album’s pomposity and scale, musically speaking, it feels like a big step backward. With Bud, Sweat & Beers, Devlin delivered one of the most promising British debuts of 2010. But on A Moving Picture, it’s as if he’s merely treading water, still mulling over what musical course might suit him best, a director without direction.