One of Britain’s most intriguing hopes still has some serious thinking to do.
Daniel Ross 2012
One of the more popular fallacies when it comes to music is the ‘curse’ of the Mercury Prize. Still, in a world where this head-scratcher remains prevalent, Speech Debelle (real name Corynne Elliot) must be one of the most convincing arguments for its existence. Her debut Mercury-winning LP, 2009’s Speech Therapy, was a beautiful bolt that showed British rap could be emotionally accessible. The ensuing chug of publicity wasn’t big enough for Speech, and she reacted badly. She blamed her label, had an on-stage slanging match with James Corden of all people, and said some slightly odd things about the London riots, namely that she would be looting too if she was younger. What, if anything, could her second album bring apart from confusion?
The truth is, anyone who wasn’t convinced by her debut is going to find far more to take issue with on Freedom of Speech. It is vitally conflicted by Speech’s natural desire to emote in her raps and her industrial need to make a point. Consequently, there’s a jostle between harder-edged examples like Blaze Up a Fire and the Mogwai-reminiscent (honestly) soul-search of Sun Dog. Blaze Up a Fire in particular is problematic, in that Speech herself has aligned it with the London riots of August 2011, even though the lyrics refer to less local affairs. "I’m not a pop star, I’m a mutha-f***in’ thug," she hisses, though no-one was ever accusing her of being either.
Angel Wings complicates the album further, mixing Speech’s industrial and emotional conflicts more deeply. She hits out at bloggers and critics who attacked her for saying she knew she would win the Mercury Prize, but this is the sort of bravado that some of her male counterparts get away with all the time without excuse. Sensitivity is one of her strongest qualities, but here it’s unnecessary. Her being so sure of herself is another, and one that she has no need to apologise for.
It’s probably best that the LP ends on the bucolic, charged and fantastic Sun Dog. This is where her efforts are best spent, the one song on the album that shows her ability to search herself with lyrics and let the music sympathise with it. "There’s work to be done," she begins, before detailing a sleepless work ethic while recording this set. In a way, it’s a fair summation. You can’t fault her attitude, but Freedom of Speech shows that one of Britain’s most intriguing hopes still has some serious thinking to do.