This time last year the future was looking rosy for Stephen Manderson, aka Professor Green. After something of a false start on Mike Skinner‘s ill-fated label The Beats, the former battle-rapper, who paid his dues in the clubs of Hackney, was finally getting somewhere.
His debut album, Alive Til I’m Dead, saw him hailed as Britain’s new king of rap. An ice cool blend of radio-friendly pop with a grime edge, he was a more credible Dizzee Rascal, a next generation Skinner. His re-workings of The SOS Band‘s Dub Be Good To Me with Lily Allen and INXS‘s I Need You Tonight proved there’s still a market for popular hip-hop. It was a winning formula.
So it’s hard to see how and where Professor Green’s second album At Your Convenience went so wrong. For a start it lacks the charm of its predecessor, which almost winked at you as you hit ‘play’. The tongue in cheek references that once earned him a lad-down-the-pub image have been sanded away and instead he sneers his way through, spitting and glaring with a whiney, mockney accent and the sort of pubescent snottiness that emerged from Eminem by album II.
Like Eminem, he’s been through a hell of a lot – from the suicide of his father a couple of years ago to the fatal overdose of a heroin-addicted friend and even a bottle attack at a gig in London – and used it all as source material. It makes for a tumultuous and very transparent lyric sheet; from Read All About It (“Know that if I ever have kids, I’ll never let them be without me,”) to Astronaut, a tale of a rape victim-turned-drug addict. It’s all delivered by sugary-sweet, ’90s club-style female vocalists, supported by dropped beats and a maudlin, venomous snap from Manderson to drive home his sincerity.
It’s this brief glimmer of sensitivity that makes the bulk of At Your Inconvenience sit uncomfortably. Against a handful of tracks like these, stooped in earnest, sixth form poetry, is an album that relies on cringey teenage humour. “I promise to never be vulgar, To mention how I put my cobra in Anna Kournikova,” he says, and there are disturbingly sexist references that can’t even broker the excuse of being “artistic” or “clever”. It’s mostly boring, recycled R&B – and the only people likely to glean anything from his trashier lyrics are 12-year-old boys trying to prove their street cred. Which is exactly what Manderson’s doing himself. With the likes of Tinie Tempah and Plan B sounding fresher and more relevant by the day, these dated trance beats and chunks of grime tinged R&B aren’t going to earn him any new fans, so he’s flipped the default switch; if in doubt, get a bit naughty.
It’s a real shame, because there are moments when the promise that peppered Alive Til I’m Dead creeps out. It’s no Just Be Good To Green, but Spinning Out proves that underneath the brattish tantrums is an intelligent musician who can hear things in a unique light. Again he looks beyond the obvious when sampling, this time lifting Pixies‘ Where Is My Mind – collaborator Fink transforming its haunting hooks into a gentle lullaby of a melody. It’s a reminder of what he’s capable of – a reminder that makes this album all the more baffling.