Sheffield’s Toddla T – real name, Tom Bell, aged 26 – is back with his sophomore album, Watch Me Dance. A bit more of a mixed bag than 2009’s Skanky Skanky, Bell’s second album sees him splitting his time between Sheffield and Jamaica, and the result is, for the most part, an island-infused album with an English inner-city soul. His collaborators this time around include Roots Manuva, Skream, Ms Dynamite, Ross Orton, Wayne Marshall, Donaeo, Roisin Murphy and Shola Ama.
But Watch Me Dance also sees Toddla T encapsulating music from well before his time – the late ’80s and early ’90s, that is – and giving it the sort of hard-nosed, realist edge that today’s dance floor demands. Bell said in a press release that with Watch Me Dance, he was trying to bring together “a bit of the soul from Soul II Soul Club Classics and a bit of the left-field from Leftism”. He’s done just that, and while his particular brand of dancehall is best suited to short bursts of energy, he’s also created an album that ebbs and flows the way a good pop collection should.
Most notable about Toddla T, though, is his brashness, and his obvious sense of grinning enthusiasm about the music he’s creating. The kid is obviously a perfectionist in the mixing booth, but he’s also a dancehall encyclopedia with a hyper-active ear; he’s got too much bouncing around his brain to focus on any one bit for too long. He’s settled down a bit, though, since Skanky Skanky, and this new album allows for some surprising new directions.
Album opener and title track Watch Me Dance is a blast of good, old-fashioned funk with Roots Manuva singing gruffly over a roller-rink Parliament-type groove with squalling synths and exuberant handclaps. Take It Back is a piano-driven homage to early ’90s house with soul singer Shola Ama taking the lead. But these are red herrings, really; Watch Me Dance does still prominently feature Toddla T’s trademark humour and his smash-and-grab approach to dancehall. Look no further than Badman Flu, a sweating, fast-paced tune interspersed with fake PSA’s about “badman flu”an epidemic whose “unruly nature” makes it cause for concern. Badman Flu sounds like it would have been right at home on Skanky Skanky, right next to that album’s standout track, Shake It. If it’s even possible this early in his career, this is vintage Toddla T.
But the album’s also got an oddball track in the political anthem Streets So Warm, which was written in response to the rise of gun culture in Jamaica. Certainly, the track was written and recorded long before riots plagued the streets of London in early August, but its central statements are all the more poignant in the aftermath of such class-driven senseless violence and aggression (even more so when coupled with the fact that the physical release of Watch Me Dance had to be postponed due to the PIAS warehouse fire): “Mr Government, Mr Politician, tell me how the streets are warm,” and “The streets are warm, but the youth are cold.”
There are a few tender moments in How Beautiful It Would Be and Lovely Girl, both serving to wind down the album’s natural decrescendo. But, the closer Do It Your Way is perhaps the finest track on the album, itself a slow, soulful marriage of reggae, soul, and chiptune sensibilities. It’s all a melting pot for Toddla T, and on Watch Me Dance, he continues to bring together disparate elements with the gusto and energy of one who spends his days searching the discount bins at record stores for lost gems and unlikely source material. It’s a different animal than its predecessor, but Watch Me Dance is a fine second outing from a promising young producer.