Few of the naysayers swimming in the wake of Speech Debelle’s 2009 Mercury Prize win could match the tide of doubts and reservations she’s capable of inflicting on herself on record. Her second album shows her still reflecting on social unrest, incipient economic collapse, relationship trouble, criticism online, and other demons both inner and outer. The music is a surprisingly bright and oddly retro backdrop to such subject matter; landscaped by Ghostpoet producer Kwes, synths flutter and throb alongside ’90s soft rock, chimes and keyboard fills while Debelle delivers the expected mix of progressive sociopolitical critique and self-aware emoting.
Lead single ‘Studio Back Pack Rap’ is an attention-grabbing kickoff, opening with unstable beats and choppy spitting that slips into a slyly smooth tribute to DIY recording. The hotly debated ‘Blaze Up A Fire’, meanwhile, makes a commendable contribution to the soul-searching and self-mythologising of post-riots London. Even if the song’s concerns are perhaps too disparate to offer any specific insights, guest vocalists Roots Manuva and Realism step in with coolly prophetic precision between Debelle’s critical nods to Iraq and the 2011 Egyptian revolution as well as “courts and cops” closer to home. Similar concerns inform ‘The Problem’, which combines agile rapping with a casually anthemic refrain, and ‘Eagle Eye’, which conjures disturbing glimpses of corruption, panic and police brutality, contrasting them with the all-conquering certainty of the desire for flight that swells the chorus.
In the plausibly melodramatic ‘Collapse’, catastrophic economic and ecological predictions are spun into spiralling dystopian visions swirling with conspiracy theories and back-to-the-land exhortations. With Debelle’s evangelical, half-taunting delivery and the music’s insidious, unsteady grind scattered with keyboard runs like jangled nerves, the song takes a certain masochistic–nihilistic delight in the possibilities of apocalypse. Greater in ambition than ‘Blaze Up A Fire’, as a state-of-the-nation jeremiad its uncompromising bleakness and incipient hysteria is also a more direct articulation of our simmering, unfocused tensions and anxieties and their potential for eruption.
In general here, Debelle’s political material does more to engage the listener than the less inspired personal songs. On the enjoyable ‘Shawshank’, a halting start kindles like a campfire into a warm glow of synth, the lyric’s wry reflections on lost love and “chasing the ones that’ll never be right for me” dropping into a call-and-response that almost manages to sound chirpy. Elsewhere, however, the plodding platitudes of ‘Live For The Message’ outweigh its undeniably accurate proselytising, and ‘Elephant’ and ‘X Marks The Spot’ tread wearily familiar ground – useless boyfriends, justified but painful break-ups – in which the music, like the relationships described, seems to drag itself on ruefully to an inevitable conclusion. A notable exception to this is ’Sun Dog’, the album’s sign-off. Like her debut’s ‘Finish This Album’, it’s a meta invocation of Speech’s work ethic as a vital part of her psychological makeup, around which revolves some supercharged social commentary that lapses into the slow-burn self-actualisation of the chorus before the song reaches its string-led and vocal-choked climax.
A long way on from the hype of 2009, Speech Debelle’s sincerity and commitment to her craft are clear, and Freedom Of Speech is an accomplished, thoughtful and confident offering. The question at this point, unfortunately, might not be whether this follow-up will convince her detractors but rather how many are still listening closely enough to be convinced.
[Big Dada; February 13, 2012]
Tagged studio back pack rap