February 9, 2012
Review: Speech Debelle – ‘Freedom of Speech’
Speech Debelle – Freedom of Speech
When Corynne Elliot won the 2009 Mercury Prize with her Speech Debelle debut Speech Therapy, it sent shockwaves* (*mild interest) through the entire music industry* (*Steve Lamacq). The venerable institution had given the prize to an entry from one of its ‘token’ categories (usually hip-hop, jazz or planking), but had they actually given it to a decent record? Either way, Speech Therapy didn’t sell, and its Wayne Lotek-produced wallpaper jazz-hop beats didn’t reach anything like the amount of people her label, Big Dada, must surely have hoped. It seemed that the Mercury, reeling from accusations of being safe and boring (previous winners include Jim Reeves, Loggins and Messina, Kenny G and Elbow), had chosen the wrong record to make a statement with.
Now Elliot returns with Freedom of Speech, a follow up that abandons the introspection of its predecessor in return for a more engaging and forthright tone, yet it still fails to totally convince. The scattergun attack of ‘Studio Backpack Rap’ starts things on a fun note with a verbal tour round Elliot’s metaphorical studio set to old skool beats. Production work is largely handled by Warp artist Kwes, who strives to create a varied, largely darker musical palette for Elliot to bounce off — sometimes successfully (‘Elephant’, ‘Sun Dog’), sometimes otherwise (‘The Problem’, ‘Shawshank Redemption’). ‘Live for The Message’ is one of the album’s more rounded efforts, an interesting blend of Explosions in the Sky-type delayed guitar and uplifting horns, before ‘Blaze Up A Fire’ makes a U-turn on both message and quality, a stilted and half-arsed contribution from labelmate Roots Manuva doing nothing to rescue it.
Elliot’s main failing lies with her use of esotericism as currency, something that critics are so often sold by. A female rapper with an inspirational backstory, a semi-eclectic bunch of live hip-hop fusion beats, and a few tired platitudes about society’s ills don’t constitute good music alone (see also: Sound Of Rum). But scratch beneath all this, and there are signs of potential: the Bonobo collaboration ‘Sun Will Rise’, ‘Better Days’ from Speech Therapy, a tidy contribution to DJ Whitesmith’s ‘Missing Day’s Music’. Unfortunately, there’s little of this promise to be found on Freedom of Speech.
The devoted sentiments of ‘Shawshank Redemption’ quickly break out into a Lily Allen-grade reggae beat, and ‘The Problem’s wailing guitars and syncopated, cluttered production tests patience. ‘Collapse’ (inspired by the film of the same name) deals with the future of man by way of some of the album’s most wince-inducing lines (“imagine if there was no more oil and I don’t mean olive / I mean the type of oil where BP spill is”).
New single ‘I’m With It’ is a puzzler: with all the gold still left in the mines of music’s past, why channel the DFS advert grooves of Hot Chocolate, complete with a piano-and-disco-strings hook that takes aim straight at the playlists of local FM drive time stations? A number of remixes on the single further hint at potential in Elliot’s sound — a particularly impressive refit from Lapalux being a prime example — but their inclusion here only adds to the frustrating nature of the original.
Real accomplishment appears with closing track ‘Sun Dog’, where touching production work from Kwes builds to a crescendo, elevating some of Elliot’s better couplets (“the voice on my shoulder says sleep when you’re dead / get out of bed / 2am, Mac Pro typing again / freestyling again”). Its quality is something sorely missing from the rest of Freedom Of Speech.
Read this review in context over at THE STOOL PIGEON