oots Manuva talent for not taking himself too seriously, even in the midst of severe depression, is one of his greatest assets. He takes self-conscious pleasure in the idiosyncratic quirks of his British English, slyly transmuting hackneyed Jay-Z-styled boasts like “This world is mine / You friggers never gave me nuffing.” He likes the word “frig,” nearly as much as Hova likes the word he would have used instead. You could play a Roots Manuva drinking game with one shot for each permutation of “frig,” two for “lager,” and a chug for “geezer.” As in Manuva’s introduction on Alternately Deep’s “Seat Yourself”: “The R. O. D. / The N. E. Y. / That’s that bloke, that geez’, that guy.” Down your pint of bitter, boys and girls.
UK hip-hop, powered by Dizzee Rascal, Lady Sovereign, and The Streets, is hot right now, but Manuva is more than a little ambivalent about all the attention. On “Colossal Insight” he grumbles, “I don’t give a damn about UK rap, I’m a UK black making UK tracks and / I’ve got love for every one of them scenes / And them pigeonholes were never nuttin’ to hold me.” Fair cop. Manuva has been around longer than any of these blokes, long enough to launch a couple of protégés and get a little bitter (and I don’t mean lager). He is owed a lot: Lady Sov’s London patois, simultaneously cocky and self-mocking, grew up on the floor of the Roots-Fi discothèque, though Sov’s sterling silliness never hits Manuva’s pitch of grandiloquent oddity, while Dizzee Rascal’s frenetic glitch-hop can sound like Roots Manuva’s off-kilter dub played at double speed, with Dizzee’s urgent, careening pinball squeaks instead of Manuva’s peerless profundity.
With the awkwardly titled Alternately Deep, Manuva is setting himself a pattern: release a hugely impressive, commercially marginal album of new material (Run Come Save Me, Awfully Deep), then revisit the material a few months later with an eye to the unexplored musical potentials. Lacking the musical coherence of Dub Come Save Me, which plumbed the bottom-frequency depths of Manuva’s musical arsenal, Alternately is clearly the weaker of the two follow-ups, despite some strong showings.
The major new track is “Seat Yourself,” the contrarily-titled banger that is closest in spirit to the masterful “Witness (1 Hope).” Roots abandons the exploration of his psychoses for a thunderously defiant call to, um, sit down and remain calm. Much of the rest of the album, like the Jammer remix of “Colossal Insight,” has the slightly hollow, dreary feel of outtakes, or perhaps that’s just the sound of Manuva’s depression working without the full weight of his production powers. On “No Love,” Manuva presents himself as the “long time loony / Black George Clooney” who is also endowed with a “todger with the luminous piss.” The man clearly has some penis anxieties. On Awfully, he complained (boasted?) about kinky nurses who “poke you in the arse and measure your schlong.”
Alas, Awfully’s polished-granite production simply doesn’t lend itself to the sorts of sonic reinvention that made Dub such a surprisingly tasty after-album treat. Manuva’s flow on Alternately is close to its peak, but the album feels like the collection of loose ends it is. For Manuva’s real sonic experiments, listeners are better off with the Awfully Deep Noodle Pack, featuring the spooky “Manoustic” take on “Colossal Insight,” which Manuva himself describes as “pretty weird” (compared to what, exactly, Roots?). Even better is the parsimoniously-titled Awfully De / EP, predicated on a slightly accidental session with Damon Albarn after Manuva’s star turn on Gorillaz’ Demon Days. The remix puts Manuva’s psychic dis-ease front and centre, stripping away the musical bravado and framing his intimate, unexpectedly disturbing lyrics about being confined to a “farm of the funny” with a plaintive piano melody. As Manuva fights the doctors who want to “certify me mad,” an angry guitar fights the prevailing melancholy, but in the end, it’s the melancholy that wins. Let’s hope that with Alternately Deep Roots has exorcised his demons, luminous pee and all, and can get to work on his next brand new album.