Affecting, empowering fare from a young rapper sparking with ambition.
Mike Diver 2010
Before we proceed, a diminutive elephant in the room requires acknowledging. Whatever the quality of this debut, Manchester rapper Envy would always have incurred a comparison to the biggest midget in the game, recent Big Brother housemate Lady Sovereign. To her credit, Envy – aka Nicola Varley – nods the way of the love-her-or-hate-her lyricist; and not in a manner where braggadocio impedes perspective. She recognises Sov’s importance in the scene, female emcees thin on the ground as they are, and proffers at least one thumb up.
Much of Set Yourself on Fire surpasses Sov’s material to date, though. While the two share surface-level similarities, the delivery of the northern artist is far slicker, her syllable-squeezing technique admirably accomplished. It’s no surprise she’s won a number of freestyle battle competitions, such is the explosive yet meticulously detailed manner of her flow. There’s little in her voice to suggest an upbringing anywhere outside of the M25, but Envy’s work with London-based Akira the Don perhaps qualifies the lack of a discernable regional accent.
The Don himself makes a writing/production appearance on Lullaby, but the profanity-laden effort ranks amongst this collection’s weaker moments – despite Envy’s thoughtful verses and an authentically confrontational tone, the rated-for-mature central lyrical motif seems unnecessary. Elsewhere, Varley demonstrates that she’s perfectly capable of capturing an audience without the need for f-word passages. Indeed, such is her playful prose, often skirting around obvious potty-mouth put-downs, that there’s huge pop potential at the record’s core.
Friday Night is a female-perspective night out adventure – Tinie Tempah’s Pass Out without the tiresome male bravado – and its catchy chorus and bouncy, bleeping arrangement make for a cheeky, chirpy whole that’s as face-value breezy as it serious beneath the surface. Similarly instant of hit are the Timbaland-of-beat Something About You, reflecting upon a partner’s cheating; the rapid-fire rhythms of Normal and the chilled, subtle-on-the-scratching vibe of On the Horizon; and the sirens-wailing title-track, which addresses self-harm and teen violence in a matter-of-fact ‘WTF’ fashion, all the more effective for its didactic brevity. The title itself is no reference to pyromania, but an expression of how the individual must ignite their own individuality to excel and succeed.
That Envy’s done so herself has resulted in a fine case study for listeners willing to actually listen: at its best, this is affecting, empowering fare from an artist sparking with ambition. Mercury panel, are you listening?