“Imagine if I showed you one day I was leaving the hood/Would you call me a sell-out?” Dizzee Rascal, Mercury-anointed king of UK grime asks in the first line of “Imagine” during his sophomore album Showtime‘s fantastic final lap. The wasp-buzz edge of his voice is relatively tempered by tentative inquisitiveness. Just two songs earlier, the kid who once kicked his pregnant baby momma to the curb with a whithering “oh well” in the galvanizing “I Luv U” croons tunelessly with a chorale of sweet children to the chorus of South Pacific‘s “Happy Talk.” (OK, he follows it with a “fuck the singing” aside, but still….) Has success (and opening for Jay-Z) softened the man who was so famously “Vexed” not more than 10 months ago? No, “softened” would be the wrong word for an album as relentlessly listenable as Showtime. “Shaded” is more like it. Where his Boy in da Corner was an unrelentingly harrowing and intense listen, Showtime sees Dizzee (probably armed with a much higher-priced set of production equipment) making a discernibly considered effort to refine his sound, make it more approachable. Purists and nihilists may balk, but to do so they’d have to ignore an album that, on the whole, is a great deal more concentrated and consistent than its predecessor. Dizzee’s message to the haters at the beginning of “Respect Me”—“You people are going to res-pppect me if it kills…yew…”—is characteristic of the entire album. On the surface, his arch delivery is amicably hilarious and almost comfortingly stylized (like a Mike Skinner); but at the same time, and probably dependent on knowing from where he’s come, his boasting is heftier and tinged with desperation (as when he claims to be “hotter than Nelly”; if only). American audiences will do well to seek and print out lyric sheets to navigate Dizzee’s jagged flow cadence, lest his cheeky sense of humor fall by the wayside. (Choice bit from the lead-off single, the percolating bit of Grand Prix video game happy hardcore “Stand Up Tall”: “Can’t run the marathon without trainin’ or stretch the arse-hole without straining.”) But Showtime‘s trade-off is that, in his seeming quest to move from critical lapdog to Source master blaster, Dizzee has learned how to gene-splice his uniquely atonal Manchester sound with a variety of popular beat styles. Between the tight Timbaland handclaps-and-tabla of “Everywhere,” the hyperkinetic tornado of backward scratching that turns “Hype Talk” into a sonic spin-painting, and the ubiquitous 78rpm Motown sample (a la Kayne West) behind the galvanizing “Fickle,” Showtime is an unyielding party mix that truly invites comparison to the Brix duo he shouts out in the liner notes: Basement Jaxx.
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