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Album Of The Week

The Lead Review: Josh Gray On Roots Manuva's Bleeds
Josh Gray , October 30th, 2015 11:04

With the release of Roots Manuva's sixth full length, Josh Gray examines the lure of its musical messianism, and the role anti-authoritarian faith can play in the modern world

The term 'messianic' is bandied about a lot these days (indeed the phrase 'bandied around a lot these days' is also bandied about a lot these days too, but who cares?). It's a label that, when applied to hip hop, is bound to evoke images of untamed egos, all-white wardrobes and unsubtle album titles: Snoop Dogg's Reincarnated, Kanye West's Yeezus, Nas' God's Son and so on. John Lennon's once controversial boast of The Beatles being "bigger than Jesus" is now de rigueur in the church that Chuck D built, the quest for immortalisation through rap divinity universal. The pomp and circumstance, the repurposing of biblical language by the self-obsessed to effectively boast about their wallet to dick thickness ratio, all of it has completely transformed what we talk about when we talk about messianism.

But once you strip away the preening pretension that leeches onto the convention of each new 'rap Messiah' you come to realise that the cliché is deserving of being repurposed itself. In if you're going to try and unironically incorporate the trappings of Jesus Christ into your musical persona, you need to produce music that speaks for the dispossessed and oppressed while attempting to tap into a higher spiritual truth. Have a skim through your gran's King James next time you visit and you'll find Jesus' story contains precious few thrones to be watched or jewels to be run. It's all about faith, injustice, suffering and blood.

These are the qualities that pervade Roots Manuva's Bleeds from start to finish. Rather than ripping off merely the image of Christ in full stained-glass swag, the rapper born Rodney Smith champions a socially conscious message of peace and equality that millions of Christians ignore every year. Whether it's drawing attention to the hypocrisy of the well-moneyed lawmakers or hanging out with pimps (or "broke cunts" and "hard bastards" as Roots Mavuna's less than holy tongue christens them) Bleeds continually proves itself to be a thoroughly modern gospel.

That's not to say that the album comes off as a sermon, or, at least, not your average Sunday morning hallelujah-PowerPoint kind. Nor is this a Yasiin Bey-style rebirth. In fact it feels more like a natural evolution for the British rapper. Part of the appeal of his past releases has been Roots Manuva's ability to flip effortlessly between meaningful ruminations and very silly wordplay at the drop of a toothbrush. His infamously sharp tongue might principally speak for the meek (as he claims on 'Stepping Hard') but it can and does flick back into his cheek when he wills it. On Bleeds, however, these patented forays into the nonsensical are deployed tactically to highlight the more serious subject matter at hand. On single 'One Thing', a biting critique of capitalist control mechanisms produced by Switch, lyrics about the effects of the Social Bill on underprivileged areas are laid alongside such poignant bars as:

"O crack it off, look at these eggs

 Poached and scrambled, my preamble

 Amble's over, no Land Rover."

While elsewhere on the album he still finds time to refer to his salami flopping out due to cleavage lockout and his (sch)longstanding genital complex that's popped up again and again on his more entertaining tracks. The Banana Clan man hasn't lost his sense of humour, but he has sidelined it somewhat in order to hone in on more serious matters. Consequentially the fun Four Tet featuring 'Facety 2:11', though great for dancefloor filling, comes off as something of a misstep when squeezed into the spiritually-heavy first half of the album; although the fact that the most light-hearted song on the album parodies the format of a Bible verse should demonstrate just how deep the roots of its creator's spiritual history run on this album.

A heavy dose of religiosity has always run through the veins of the son of a deacon's music. Rodney Smith's internal battle with the personal demons of his churchgoing youth has inspired some of his most thought-provoking and poignant lyrics, but over the past decade his writing has evolved to reflect his coming to terms with this eternal internal dilemma. Early songs such as 'Silly Sin Sins' saw Roots dwelling on the innate contradiction between Christianity's claims to endorse a personal faith with the "middle-man" of the established church twisting words to suit its own means. This discomfort within his own skin empowered the bare-chested introspection in the darker recesses of Run Come Save Me and Awfully Deep, but by the time Slime And Reason was released Roots Manuva had forgiven Jesus his trespasses. His heartfelt claim of "my definition of the Lord is: The strength that break the shackle and the chain" over the straight up gospel of 'Let The Spirit' was the sound of a man discovering the core of what he truly believes and crushing it into a diamond, a burning core that would energise the burgeoning social commentary of 4everrevolution, an album that offered a glimpse of what a less introspective and more morally minded version of Roots Manuva could achieve.

What was only hinted at on its predecessor comes to the forefront on the more mature Bleeds, which is completely built around Roots Manuva's personal conception of faith. But it is not the navel-gazing, Jesus-praising, kum ba yah kind; this is faith with its eyes turned outwards, the kind that overturns tables in temples and rages against injustice and inhumanity. This is a white-hot sword aimed at those wardens of the world who claim to be our saviours, abetted by the false prophet "sloganeers and the nouveau-rebellists, trained to take the bait of big business", (as they are condemned on the biblically huge 'Cargo'). Elsewhere, the upbeat but subtly deep 'Breath Out' sees Rodney Smith stepping into his father's shoes to boast:

"You can't discover me, God alone governs me,

I know they don't like the word but I shall observe and I shall do service,

 here on the pulpit"

Spouting distinctively 21st century anti-slave rhetoric, Roots Manuva bears witness to the smoke and mirrors, the sleight of hand employed by the one percent to rob the underprivileged of their beliefs: belief in a better world, belief that this is not the natural order of things, belief in the power of words as a force for both good and evil. But alongside all this righteous fury, in the face of a faceless enemy whose weapons are apathy and unthinking habit, Roots continues to hold onto tightly to an enduring hope in a revelation of universal truth. This is epitomised on the organ-fuelled closer 'Fighting For' as he finishes his testament on the hopeful note:

"Calm it, justice will reign supreme,

Routines of life cause a loss of belief...

 Greater steps for all creed and kind,

 With movements of this divine design"

Earlier on the album, when Roots summons up the character of 'Black Jesus' as an allegory for the cultural ghettoisation of the urban poor, he might well be aiming for moderate self-effacement. But so successful is he at repurposing the tools his father gave him on this, his own personal Passion, that the label becomes him more than he might like to admit. Back on Run Come Save Me's 'Evil Rabbit' Roots Manuva swore he was Jesus but lacked the evidence. Bleeds provides, if not quite proof of this most sacrilegious of statements, then at least an incentive to open debate of the positive role that anti-authoritarian faith can play in the modern world. In its own way Bleeds is a blues album, coloured by suffering and shared guilt. Who better to get lessons on suffering and sharing guilt from than Christ himself?