London’s Rowdy Superstar is a Next Big Thing for the underground. His recent support slots include opening for Patrick Wolf, and the video for early single Tick Tock was directed by Ollie Evans, who had previously worked with Klaxons and The Gossip. Rough Trade East released his single Get Ur Shizzit RIIIIIght. As always, it’s hard not to be sceptical, and when an artist’s website details his three principal influences as Prince, David Bowie and M.I.A., there’s an eye-rolling sense of imminent disappointment. As expected, the album is good, but it’s not that good.
In the event, the M.I.A. reference makes a lot of sense. Rowdy Superstar’s music is reasonably similar to hers. The drawl, the posturing, the brattiness affected by both artists is underpinned by some wit and intelligence, and the abrasiveness of the production is carefully restrained. The Prince influence is less obvious, and the Bowie reference makes little sense whatsoever. In fact, ‘Bowie’, on Battery, seems to be shorthand for ‘a little bit experimental’. What Bowie means to the rest of the world, and what Prince means too for that matter, is hooks by the bucketload, and Battery doesn’t really have any.
The main difference between Rowdy Superstar and his heroes lies in their ability to justify experimentation with choruses. While on Battery, Never Let Go approximates a proper pop chorus, there is desperate need for a Paper Planes or an XXXO to break up the difficult twists and turns across which Superstar delivers his lines – a shame because, on the whole, the lines are good. “Un, deux, trois, four,” begins Boy. It provokes a snort, and crucially it’s a short joke. Hearing it a second time doesn’t grate. On Phantom Wifey, the perils of romance over Facebook are elaborated: “So hot when you’re on your screen/Meet you and your butters face is a crime scene”. “I think it’s fucking stupid/When they say describe my music/Here’s a cotton bud use it/You’re being lazy/Genre can’t contain me” may be his best line, but it is in itself undermined by Rowdy Superstar’s fairly obvious musical positioning. While Battery straddles a few of the post-grime genres, they’re all closely related and there’s no real surprise to be found here. Despite the hyperbolic claims of his website, Rowdy Superstar is hardly a visionary.
It’s a shame Rowdy Superstar finds making a more limited strain of hip-hop so frustrating, because on 1234 his approach, both in terms of production and delivery, is more compelling than on any of his more mixed offerings. The monotone chorus, shouted over heavy metal guitars, abandons his grasp for a more sophisticated musicality, and lets the track do the singing for him. Superstar obviously can sing, and does so effectively on Phantom Wifey, his most Prince-like moment. But he’s a better rapper than he is a singer – singers need good melodies, and those are largely absent on Battery.
This first album shows promise, and there’s no doubt that Rowdy Superstar has charisma. That much is darkly evident on WAR, perhaps the standout track. It is the shadowy moments on Battery that hint at real depth, at the great things that may be to come. But the brilliance of Prince, Bowie and M.I.A. remain out of his reach for now.