The underground grime crew have turned into a potent pop force.
Louis Pattison 2010
As an underground group with commercial ambitions, you face a difficult hurdle: how to take an original, boundary-shifting but sometimes unpalatable sound and break it into a mass audience without spoiling the integrity of what you do in the process? It’s a hurdle that Roll Deep faced back in 2005 with the release of their debut album, In at the Deep End. A grime crew forged in the east London neighbourhood of Bow, Roll Deep have seen now-popular names like Dizzee Rascal, Wiley, Tinchy Stryder and 1xtra DJ Target rise through its ranks. For …Deep End, though, it turned out that snappy grime numbers like When I’m ‘Ere lacked the commercial appeal of crossover tunes such as The Avenue and Shake a Leg.
Roll Deep, then, have evolved into a curious – albeit not terribly uncommon – thing: a grime crew that doesn’t play grime. Their fourth album, Winner Stays On, is, flagrantly, a pop album, and the good news is that they’re getting better at it. Good Times, which hit number one in the charts back in May, is excellent: a deliberately glitzy celebration of kicking up one’s heels, tales of high-street consumerism and clubbing propelled upwards on ecstatic synth bumps and a yearning chorus courtesy of Jodie Connor. Both Take Control (complete with a vocal from Alesha Dixon) and Green Light, a Calvin Harris-style pop bounce that wraps cheeky mating-game raps around a Green Cross Code-friendly metaphor, stick to a similar formula – and while this is obvious stuff, it’s certainly well-done.
Elsewhere, there are a couple of moments that hark back to Roll Deep’s grime genesis. Out the Blue finds Scratchy, Breeze, Brazen and Wiley dropping rhymes over booming sub-bass. And while Team is not exactly lyrically spectacular – it features Wiley’s habitual fall-back of ending every line with the same word – it smashes it through busy, zig-zagging synth and sheer force of numbers. More quality grime would be nice, but Winner Stays On proves Roll Deep are no longer an underground crew trying to make pop: the charts are there for the taking.