A pure, you’re-only-as-old-as-you-feel joy of a fifth album from the Brit-hopper.
Garry Mulholland 2011
One of the most agreeable recent developments in the making of long-playing records has been the rediscovery of brevity. Whether the reasons are aesthetic or cynical, the last 10 years or so has seen a gradual return to the short, sharp 40-minute album after all the turgid, filler and skit-filled self-indulgences of the 1990s. So it was cause for concern when one noticed that the fifth album proper by veteran British rapper/producer Rodney Smith, aka Roots Manuva, featured as many as 19 tracks and ran to just under an hour. Especially because its predecessor, 2008’s Slime & Reason, was a somewhat dispiriting affair which sounded like the lugubrious but charming south Londoner had become lost in a world of introspection and self-pity. An hour of dense, low-tempo grumbles about money and disillusion? Not an exciting prospect.
Thankfully, it turns out that 4everevolution is long because Smith seems, since relocating to Sheffield and working occasionally with South Yorkshire neighbour and mischievous dance producer Toddla T, to have hit the richest creative vein of his accomplished career. This outstanding long-player is, by some distance, his best yet, combining the squelchy beats and Brit-Jamaican humour he is known for with a musical eclecticism and experimental joy that is entirely new.
Unlike the traditional hip hop album, 4everevolution sees Smith plus various members of his Banana Klan crew swapping ‘real’ instruments, mixing them with Smith’s trademark, bass-heavy electronics and building tracks that sound spontaneous, completely un-generic and packed with excitement, adventure and optimism. Amongst these tracks, there isn’t one that feels superfluous. And Smith’s refusal to follow any current trend in pop-rap or urban dance production ensures that every one is a sonic surprise.
There are guest spots – including Skin and Cass from Skunk Anansie on Skid Valley’s punchy social commentary, Toddla T on Watch Me Dance, and Australian producers Dizz1 and Monkeymarc on the outstanding Here We Go Again and Who Goes There? respectively – but every collaborator here surrenders to Smith’s freewheeling but entirely focused sonic vision. Highlights are the gothadelic The Throes of It; the loose, almost punk-funkish Noddy; the witty, loved-up G-funk of Much Too Plush; and the mutant dubstep of The Path, which showcases the deliciously weird female vocals of new discovery Elan Tamara. And in the synthetic steel-pan ballad Wha’ Mek? – one of three tunes in which Smith proves that he’s almost as good a singer as rapper – he has a post-Mike Skinner dysfunctional love song that could, perhaps, be the hit single that has proved so elusive to him.
The album also takes in prowling street-rap, upbeat disco throwbacks, reggae and dancehall ragamuffin anthems, Stevie Wonder and George Clinton references a-plenty and a feeling that you’ve been invited to an all-weekend party in a recording studio with several of the most talented people you’ll ever meet. It’s a pure, you’re-only-as-old-as-you-feel joy to hear British hip hop’s most original and inspiring voice hitting his peak as he approaches his 40th year.