Finally receiving a proper release in the U.S. nearly a year after it was available in Europe and as a digital-only album stateside, Dizzee Rascal’s Maths + English arrives with a slightly altered tracklisting that only reinforces the already strong impression that it’s the rapper’s open attempt at replicating an American hip-hop record. While his debut, 2003’s Boy in Da Corner, stands as a gripping portrait of urban rot that is among the densest albums released this decade, and his sophomore effort, 2005’s Showtime, proved that he could pull off an entire album of outsized floor fillers, Maths attempts to balance the two primary modes of popular American hip-hop.
Diz is more successful when he trades in the specifics of city life in the U.K.—on the rapid-fire, “old school storytelling shit” botched robbery narrative in the second verse of lead single “Sirens,” for instance, or the deceptively laidback assessment of the role of the police on “Excuse Me Please”—that recall the drug-trade cycles and the self-mythologizing of Jay-Z’s American Gangster, the Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury, and Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale. At his best (and when it’s actually possible to parse his inimitable delivery), Dizzee is even more insightful than many of his American counterparts: On opener “World Outside,” he boasts, “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,” and the glassy, jagged beats suggest that he’s not speaking exclusively in terms of urban slums.
Dizzee has proven that he’s an artist of real vision, which is what makes his attempts to embrace many of American hip-hop’s most juvenile, reactionary tendencies on Maths all the more disappointing and ill-fitting. The utterly useless Lily Allen turns up as the attention-whoring hook girl on “Wanna Be,” a novelty single that pulls its tepid punchline in its first verse and then drags on interminably thereafter. While the embarrassing “Pussy’ole” has been mercifully excised from the U.S. release, there’s still no defense for “Suk My Dick,” an aggressively defensive (ironically so, if Pitchfork is to be believed) bit of posturing that actually intones a few bars of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” “U Can’t Tell Me Nuffin’” is similarly churlish and empty and lacks a clear antecedent given the reception Dizzee’s previous two albums enjoyed. “Where Da Gs,” a collaboration with UGK, falls flat because it reduces to Dizzee, Bun B, and Pimp C trading verses on which they call out anonymous fake thugs. As with many American hip-hop records (the last two 50 Cent albums, to pick just two, though parts of Kanye’s Graduation fit just as well), these tracks reduce to insubstantial, flossy insistences of street cred.
Dizzee’s talented enough that he can get away with the occasional throwaway single—here, “Flex” and “Bubbles” are the slick club bangers—but the deliberate adoption of some of the patterns that have cheapened much of commercial American hip-hop for fully one-third of Maths is troubling. When the other two-thirds of the record prove that Dizzee has a shrewd understanding of how to adapt his grime-based style to and how to place his uniquely informed narratives in the context of modern American gangsta rap, it makes for an album that derails pretty spectacularly at regular intervals.