It makes sense that indie-darling rap label Def Jux is distributing Maths + English, the 3rd album from British hip-hop/grime/whatever sensation Dizzee Rascal, in the United States. Rascal has the same critical acclaim and popular obscurity as anyone else on the label, and his albums are as viciously dense and challenging as anything in Cannibal Ox’s discography. There’s also a level of irony in this pairing, however; Maths + English is Rascal’s most accessible album to date, far more so than his acclaimed (if overrated) debut Boy in Da Corner and his less acclaimed follow-up Showtime. This accessibility, combined with Rascal’s considerable skill, makes for his best effort yet.
Rascal’s flow – confident, steamroller-powerful, and delivered in an occasionally impenetrable English accent – is a considerable strength, and his producer Nick Cage (along with a few others) accentuates this with dense, busy production. Sometimes the production gets too busy, and the best tracks are often the simplest. Opener “World Outside” features clanking, metallic percussion, wind-like synths, and Bose-rattling bass, and Rascal offers both a look at his past and a hope for the future: “There’s a world outside of the manor and I want you to see it/ I can see it, I can see it, I can see it/ There’s a world outside of the ghetto and I want you to see it/ I can see it, I can see it, I can see it.” “Excuse Me Please,” backed with skeletal keyboards and another nifty bassline, sees Rascal in a contemplative mood, shaking his head at the world’s evils while still trying to stay optimistic. It’s the most lyrically powerful track on the album, showing a degree of self-awareness missing from a lot of musicians in general (let alone hip-hoppers).
The album has already garnered a reputation as being more “American” than past Rascal efforts, and there is definitely truth to that statement. “Flex” is a prototypical club banger, Peabo Bryson-sampling “Da Feelin'” an Ibiza-cruising answer to Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s “Summertime,” and Houston`s UGK pop up on “Where’s Da G’s,” Bun B and the late Pimp C spitting fire as Dizzee calls out posers and fakers over a Southern-influenced beat (“find yourself a pretty girl and settle” is a thoroughly amusing diss). “Where’s Da G’s,” one of the album’s most radio-friendly tracks, is also its standout.
It might be heresy to say, but I often found myself repeating the tracks most suitable for airplay. “Temptation” gets the prize for best sample on the album, twisting a b-side by fellow Mercury Prize winners Arctic Monkeys into a relentless, pulsating warning against the pressures and pitfalls of fame. “Sirens,” the first UK single, boasts pounding drums, foreboding sound effects (take a guess what they might be) and Rascal spinning a Slick Rick-like tale of robbery and crime before the beat makes a wicked left turn into grinding nu-metal. And “Wanna Be,” a charming mockery of fake gangsters, is the poppiest thing Rascal’s every done, with Lily Allen chirping the chorus and adding a mini-duet verse of her own. It’s goofy, borderline ridiculous, and it never fails to leave a smile on my face.
For some reason, Americans miss out on what many consider the British version’s best track, “Pussyole (Old Skool),” marking possibly the first time someone couldn’t clear the famous Lyn Collins sample that Rob Base is still riding to this day. So Def Jux offers up three bonus tracks – the okay “G.H.E.T.T.O.”, “Driving With Nowhere To Go” (a distant cousin to Nas’ “Drunk By Myself”), and an El-P remix of “Where’s Da G’s” (this IS a Def Jux album, after all). It’s all nice to have, but not particularly essential. But that’s quite all right; the album we do have is more than enough. Dizzee Rascal has succeeded in making an album that isn’t afraid to make you think, nod your head, and shake your ass, and after a year of waiting, it finally gets a domestic release. Better late than never.
MP3: “Where’s Da G’s”