Another month, another new UK hip-hop talent. Sway, Kano and Plan B have all borne this mantle in recent times, but with the exception of a certain Mr Dylan Mills, none have ever really fulfilled their early promise.
All that could be about to change with Speech Debelle. The 26-year-old Londoner sweetly raps tales of a tough upbringing in the nation’s capital and sets them to some of the most swooningly gorgeous melodies you’re likely to hear all year. It doesn’t take a genius to see her potential to become a huge name this year.
Like a lot of UK rap, Speech’s stories can be rather grim. Take opening track Searching, which recounts her time living in a homeless hostel sharing with rats, cats and a crack-addicted mother. It should be enough to make you slit your wrists before the chorus has even kicked in, but the lovely, jazzy tune carries it along beautifully.
It’s a similar story throughout the album – cheating boyfriends, gangsta wannabes and an absent father all come under Debelle’s unblinking, articulate gaze, giving the album a steely, gritty undercurrent that stops it from ever slipping into radio-friendly blandness.
Speech Therapy is an album of contrasts in many ways. Take Micachu‘s appearance on Better Days for example, her deep murmurings proving the perfect foil to Debelle’s brighter, lighter rap. There’s also The Key, which would be a contender for brightest pop song of the year, were it not for the eerie, gurgling saxophone in the background throughout.
Although the majority of Debelle’s material is politically and socially aware, she’s at her best on the more personal Go Then Bye, possibly the most painfully honest break-up song since The Streets‘ Dry Your Eyes (check out Esser‘s bonkers remix of this track too). Although references to Facebook could make it anachronistic in a couple of years’ time, it’s impossible not to be moved by Debelle’s vulnerable delivery.
Honesty drips through Daddy’s Little Girl too, a cathartic and affecting rant at a father who walked out on Debelle and her mother at a young age. “Daddy I think I love you because I hate you so much I must love you” it starts, before spiralling into an almost stream-of-consciousness rap. If ever there’s a track that sums up the album’s title, this is it.
As well as Micachu, there’s also a guest appearance from labelmate Roots Manuva, who lends his unmistakable tones to Wheels In Motion, while Spinnin’ is so bright and upbeat it should be compulsory listening in the midst of a recession: “They say these are tough times, I say you ain’t gotta tell me, I’m tired of opening the papers, I don’t even watch the TV”. It’s so catchy and contagious that it makes for the perfect song to dance your money woes away to.
While it’s true that some of the songs are almost too light and fluffy – Buddy Love almost floats away, for instance – and sometimes her rhymes are somewhat primitive (rhyming ‘issues’ with ’tissues’ for example), these are minor criticisms. Speech Therapy is a startlingly good debut album from a woman who could well be the biggest thing in UK hip-hop for many a long year.