Maths + English
he sophomore slump gets all the press, but your favorite MC has more likely fallen victim to the junior jinx. In the post-B.I.G. rapper-as-hustler narrative in which albums double as a running commentary on one's life outside the recording booth, the debut is the come-up, the next one is the comeback, and the third record…well, then what? As a result, we've been given flossy, inconsistent records along the lines of In My Lifetime, Vol. 2, I Am, Chicken & Beer, The Eminem Show, And Then There Was X, Bulletproof Wallets, Graduation (prove me wrong, Kanye) and if you think it counts, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living.
So it's easy to approach Maths + English with trepidation—Dizzee Rascal's first two albums fit perfectly into this narrative. And that's before you take into account its curious digital-only stateside release, modestly received singles, and a gestation period that was twice as long as that of Showtime. And that’s why it should be no surprise that Dizzee has hit a speed bump running the road—the first two words that come to mind when evaluating Maths + English are indeed "flossy" and "inconsistent."
The album cover shows Dylan Mills posted up solo against a garish background, but that's about the only thing it bears in common with its predecessors. Before, Dizzee played the ambassador, bringing his East London ghetto frame of mind to the world at large. On Maths + English, he does the exact opposite, trying to prove that a product of the grime scene can produce a globetrotting party record. "There's a world outside of the ghetto and I want you to see it," he claims on the intro and from there, Dizzee breaks rank with his previous 8-bit sonics into rich, resplendent tracks splashed with fluorescents. The tracks where he reverts back to his uneasy, hyper-alert former guise are given red-flag titles; "Paranoid" is a frightening account of Dizzee's mind playing tricks on him and the frantic "Temptation" will surprise you with how sample-ready Alex Turner's vocals are.
For the most part, though, this is actual showtime, with Dizzee playing the role of playboy jetsetter and loving every minute of it. Nowhere is this more clear than on "Pussyole" and "Sirens," which find Dizzee spitting furious and enthusiastic tales over massive breakbeats that sound like they predate the man himself. Player anthems like "Bubbles" and "Flex" show he was on to something with "Stand Up Tall," each made on Dizzee's increasingly sophisticated songwriting that takes him far beyond the misogyny that sometimes tainted his party starters. It's at its peak on the bonkers drum 'n' bass/Kanye hybrid "Da Feeling," which positions itself as a contender for 2007's intercontinental summer jam with its delirious enthusiasm for the fairer sex in their increasing states of undress.
But the price of diversity is cohesion and there are points where Maths + English veers wildly off track, often the result of Dizzee flexing his fattened Rolodex. The potential of "Where Da G's" is intriguing, but I'm thinking that we all loved Dizzee in the first place because he seemed like the kind of rapper that wouldn't spend five dreary minutes attacking anonymous fake thugs with UGK. How the embarrassingly juvenile "Suk My Dick" made the record is anyone's guess, and when it starts interpolating "Yankee Doodle Dandy," I come face to face with the lost hours I spent reviewing Fieldy's Dreams and Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water for my college newspaper. That's not even the album's low point, as I doubt 2007 will bring a worse offense to my ears than "Wanna Be." You'll need the tolerance of Jack Bauer to get through the first twenty seconds without wishing great pain on Lily Allen, and the blow isn't softened by "You Can't Tell Me Nuffin'," which closes out the record on an atypically churlish and defensive note. It's as if he's already trying to distance himself from the backlash he envisions for the album.
The previously leaked "Industry (Hard Back)" serves as a microcosm for Maths + English, stumbling over platitudes about not being a label slave in the beginning before eventually righting itself with more personal advice about dealing with journalists and newfound wealth. As was the case with Mike Skinner, Dizzee is struggling with bringing his eye for deceptively sober detail to a wider screen now that he's reached a level of fame that demands it. Maybe they just weren't meant to make Famous Guy albums. It's far too early to think that either won't get their creative juices flowing again, but with Maths + English, Dizzee ends up with a record that will more likely be defined by its failures than remembered for the success it achieves more often.