2013 in hip hop has been a weird year, a year of extremes. There has been some great hip hop from artists who have been doing it for a while, like Kanye West, Killer Mike and El-P, as well as terrific efforts from newcomers like Danny Brown, Chance The Rapper, Earl Sweatshirt and Drake. But then there’s the lowest common denominator from artists who were once great. First up this year was Jay-Z, one of the greatest of all time, and his godawful Magna Carta Holy Grail. Dizzee Rascal’s The Fifth deserves to be chalked under the latter category.
The list of guest stars includes Jessie J, Robbie Williams and will.i.am, and the album is as overproduced as those names suggest. Worse still, on The Fifth Dizzee Rascal succumbs to the worst stereotypes of rap music. “All I need is sex, I don’t need a reason,” he spits on I Don’t Need A Reason, over the song’s lazy trap beats. And there’s a track called Arse Like That, on which – with an eye to the American market, perhaps – he pronounces the word as “ass”. Throughout the album he still spits impressively fast, but on this evidence he apparently no longer has much worthwhile to say.
Album closer Bassline Junkie, with its title suggestive of being late to the game and its line “big, dirty stinking bass” backed by a rather run of the mill synth bassline, is lyrically something of an anti-drug campaign. He raps about how all he needs is bass, as opposed to speed, heroin and sundry other stimulants. Dizzee’s contradictory logic is on display here. (Really, Dizzee, all you need is sex? Okay, say all you need is sex. But here, you say all you need is bass. Which is it? Make up your mind, Dizzee! Oh, but you’re too busy collaborating with some of Britain’s most boring pop stars? Never mind…)
At times, Dizzee’s lyricism ventures to rock-lite levels. On Good, he raps, “I wanna disappear / To somewhere where the sun is shining and the water’s clear / Nobody talking bullshit in my ear / Just lots of cheery people drinking beer.” Even if he was being ironic, this doesn’t amount to much of a mission statement. The Robbie Williams-featuring Goin Crazy talks about screaming and shouting and waking up in the morning and looking at yourself in the mirror and believing in going crazy and other such fascinatingly mindless topics.
But if the new release from Icona Pop teaches us anything, it’s that it’s possible to sing about things that aren’t important to the world at large and do so without dumbing the audience down, and perhaps even doing so smartly, employing little moments in the musical production that make you feel like you’re hearing something new. The production on The Fifth, on the other hand, is light years behind even the worst of dubstep artists. Rather, as suggested on opener Superman, Dizzee’s still fascinated by auto-tune circa 2008.
While 2007’s Maths + English and 2009’s Tongue N’ Cheek didn’t reach the heights of Dizzee’s first two grime records – his debut Boy In Da Corner, lest we forget, won the Mercury Prize a decade ago – they were still worthwhile albums from an artist who needed to move on, and the latter at least staked his claim as a crossover pop proposition, with a run of huge singles including Bonkers. There’s still hope that Dizzee can regain that form and recapture his distinctiveness. Perhaps he needs to move back to London. Or perhaps he just needs to listen to some Danny Brown, and Brown’s collaborations with Rustie and A-Trak, for some inspiration. Or maybe he needs to return to the corner to rediscover that me-against-the-world mentality that provided us with some of the best hip hop of the 2000s. If not, The Fifth could well mark the start of a steep slide.