Ringo P. Stacey
, October 12th, 2011 07:06
I always thought of Roots Manuva as a mature sort of chap. Sophisticated, poised, not just because of the way he toys gleefully with aristocratic cadences, but through the breadth and depth of his thinking, the type who was born fully grown. But here he is starting his new album with a track called 'First Growth' apparently claiming a new maturity with its gentle funk and a weary hook, "now we finally know, now we finally see, it's our first time growing up". He could be talking about anyone, I suppose, but in the circumstances it's difficult to see that "we" not, at least, including him.
Because things have changed for Roots over the last few years. Now more than ever he stands apart from his peers, even more so than when he first broke beyond the UK hip hop underground with 1999's debut album Brand New Second Hand. Even then he appeared so assured in talent, intelligence and integrity that he'd little need for either approbation from the mainstream or doting followers in the Brit-rap ghetto. Effortlessly cool, then as now it'd seem absurd to picture Roots boasting about how real he is or pulling an (unironic) grimace promoting a desperate attempt at crossing over into the pop charts.
Twelve years on both Roots and the scene have evolved. A whole new generation has thrived taking rap in a whole different direction, and Roots has defied the odds simply by surviving. Promise fulfilled, at least in artistic terms, he stands virtually unique as a British rapper contemplating the fresh decade with a substantial track record behind him and a relatively secure career still in the offing. Five albums, eight if you include three dub sets, a clear record of his artistic progression from wide-eyed stoner programming beats in his bedroom through angst ridden crisis to some kind of maturity, complete with real instruments and stuff.
Not every track here deals explicitly with the effects of time, but those that do set the tone. Right after 'First Growth' two of the strongest performances express his view of the world, his immediate peers and British society as a whole. Over the sparse electro of 'Here We Go Again' he addresses an old friend who's caught up with hype and drugs, "a grown man should put down those childish things and let the knowledge of oneself resonate within, but something in his life isn't right with him". Ever the preacher's son, his delivery radiates the authority such biblical allusions demand, both there and on the following track 'Skid Valley' where he offers his sardonic take the avarices that fuel broken Britain, "the birthplace of the gentlemen who ain't gentle when they want to gentrify" where immigrants aspire to empty privilege, "get off the boat and chase the dream: house on a hill and a pension scheme, get the kids into private school".
It's a staggering display, as direct as Roots has ever been, highly dramatic, and ever so slightly undermined by the superfluous histrionics of Skin (from Skunk Anansie) wailing painfully on the chorus.
From that point the album takes a sharp left turn into lighter terrain with the aimless but pleasant skank of 'Who Goes There' before twisting off in all sorts of directions for the duration. 'Wha Mek' is a tender, conciliatory love letter wherein Roots apologises for all his imperfections, touching despite the odd uncharacteristic triteness. 'Much Too Plus' is a tender, cheeky love letter wherein Roots drools over the virtues of his laptop, "she's a quality item, she don't do spam", he coos, "all I need to give her is two gig of RAM". A clutch of tracks take the highly agreeable route of just plain wilding out, obviously the two singles 'Watch Me Dance' and 'Get The Get' but also 'Beyond This World', and 'Go Champ'. The last is especially choice, a dumbed down punked up 'Witness' for the new decade that ends with the declaration "know that bass is deep, know that bass is good and proper", challenging you not to sigh 'amen' in relief.
Personally, these are the tracks that'll most likely survive on my playlist beyond the end of the month. But listened to as intended in sequence they feel like scattered diversions. To be fair, if anything this exaggerates their joyous effect. The glee of Roots denying sleaze at the same time he implores some woman "let me put my loin on you" in 'Watch Me Dance' is all the more exhilarating for the exasperation that came before. But the reverse is also true, at least to a point. When he returns to tortured mode with 'Revelation', 'Takes Time' and the convoluted epic 'The Throes Of It' the aura of despair feels all the more theatrical. 'The Throes Of It' in particular is the anguished black hole at the album's heart, a cavernous gothic dub with dislocated jazz piano and Roots angst-crooning his blues, bemoaning times "When the honeymoon's o-o-o-ver, real life begins and le-e-e-a-a-a-ves a bad o-o-o-ld taste". It's an impressive achievement more than an enjoyable listen and the four tracks of relatively lightweight mild positivity that follow feel like a merciful release.
But if on the whole 4everevolution is a bit of a mess, at least by Roots own exceptionally high standards, it's an endearingly honest mess. Loveable even. Approaching physical middle age and artistic adolescence he's done what comes natural at such awkward times. Questioned fundamentals, tentatively re-definined himself. It's not an easy formula for artistic gold, and it's hardly surprising that 4everevolution lacks the sustained energy and invention of either Brand New Second Hand or Run Come Save Me. It may not be his finest hour, but that doesn't mean it's without value. Yes, there are both righteous highs and tedious lows, but the inspired moments are worth cherishing. Even if they don't always span the length of a whole track.