Rodney Smith, arguably the very best of British rappers, has been recording for well over a decade now, justifiably gathering acclaim and admiration but failing to achieve a crossover hit single. It is to his great credit that he has continued to follow his mood and creative impulses rather than adapt his sound to commercial imperatives in the manner of Dizzee Rascal or Tinie Tempah. That being said, 4everevolution, in spite of its unwieldy length, may be his most accessible album to date, its potential for success bolstered by a number of guest appearances and a greater focus on vocal melodies.
Like many a hip-hop album, sheer length renders 4everevolution somewhat uneven. Rather rudimentary and irritating moments such as Watch Me Dance (produced by Toddla T, and the title track to his own 2011 album) could endear Smith to a new audience, but they sound slight and lightweight next to the highpoints of his catalogue so far. Even more odd is the fact that Watch Me Dance is sequenced here next to the excellent, skittery Revelation, something that only serves to underline its weaknesses.
Smith’s recent work has tended to be somewhat introspective, dominated by personal concerns. On the excellent, undervalued Awfully Deep, this had superb results, the music having a dank, claustrophobic quality to match the intensity of Smith’s lyrics. On 4everevolution (what an awful title that is, incidentally), Smith reaches out a little once more. On Skid Valley (which unexpectedly features Skin and Cass from Skunk Anansie), he addresses wider societal problems in bold and uncompromising terms. Presumably recorded well before the recent UK riots, it now sounds remarkably prescient. Elsewhere, his generosity of spirit comes across in the form of some uncharacteristically positive, summery music.
Roots Manuva’s core fanbase may have limited tolerance for the confident, uninhibited pop-funk of Beyond This World or the chirpy steel pan sound that recurs frequently here. Perhaps the most interesting experiment in these areas is Wha’ Mek?, on which Smith gamely attempts to sing. It would be inaccurate to describe the results as wholly successful, but neither are they disastrous or embarrassing.
There is little doubt that much of 4everevolution pushes Smith into new, refreshing territory. When it works, it’s surprising and magnificent. He sings again on the epic, seven minute The Throes Of It, a track based on a near-shuffle beat completely devoid of any genre cliches. It’s a mercilessly relentless, unnerving piece of music. Equally brilliant is the blistering, disorientating Noddy, a sublime piece of off-kilter avant-pop. The more familiar, slinky delights of Much Too Plush and the energetic closer Banana Skank make the home stretch of 4everevolution extremely rewarding.
Lyrically, Smith neatly counterbalances societal observations with moments of considerable warmth and wit. He remains a distinctively British writer with individual concerns, with little need to borrow from anywhere or anyone else. 4everevolution is a multi-faceted, varied album that will not please all the people all of the time. That it has pockets of satisfaction for a variety of people may in fact be exactly what Rodney Smith intended.