A quick refresher on the evolution of the snare drum in hip-hop music. American producers have always ratcheted the pop to beats two and four -- boom-pop-boom-pop -- which dance-floor peacocks harness to propel their big booties in many exciting directions. In the Caribbean, however, Jamaican dancehall producers liberated the snare drum from the stuffy confines of the 4/4 beat by pushing the two snare pops to the front, and the resulting double-pop emancipation has fundamentally changed not only hip-hop, whose producers now infuse dancehall into their rhythms, but dancing. The snare, once caged, is free.
Dizzee Rascal's snare drum flies all over the place on Showtime, his second album. The London-based hip-hop producer and rapper's 2003 debut, Boy in Da Corner, was a series of urgent, jerky exclamation points that came out of nowhere and snagged Britain's coveted Mercury Prize. And Showtime is even better, even if lyrically he still leans way too much on the standard subjects, which apparently transcend oceans and borders: power, money, girls, pride -- and not necessarily in that order.
Luckily, Rascal's patois is often impenetrable to American ears -- half the time he could be rhyming about British foreign policy or English setters and we wouldn't be any the wiser. His closest rapping kindred is Chicago's Twista: Both conjure rap and Jamaican toasting, and both spit their rhymes with a drum-roll urgency. The difference, of course, is that Dizzee Rascal isn't annoying and one-dimensional. Rather, Rascal's Cockney-esque patois jumps high and low within his register, simultaneously random and ordered. He actually sounds a bit like another Diz -- Gillespie -- who scrambled his trumpet the way Rascal scrambles his verbal delivery. Both are masters at improvising jumpy chaos atop a structured foundation.
Rascal sparkles brightest as a producer. He's got his own sound, and it's decidedly, defiantly European. Where American hip-hop producers have, for the most part, ignored European techno and drum 'n' bass, Rascal was reared on the deep synthetic hums and rhythms of the music, as well as house, hip-hop, dancehall and U.K. garage. The result is an insistent, wholly unique hybrid. "Learn" is deep crunk emulsified, rigid but funky, with a tight loop of church organ locked inside a deliberate, lumbering beat. "Hype Talk" channels the Aphex Twin; a delicate, sibilant, rhythmic hiss drifts above as a simple four-note melody plings past. And the first single, "Stand Up Tall," is a raucous, digital workout that wouldn't be out of place on an Autechre album. Combined, Showtime confirms Dizzee Rascal's place as the most exciting anomaly working in hip-hop in 2004.