Speech Debelle – Freedom of Speech
Review by Jack Foley
SPEECH Debelle shot to prominence by winning the Mercury Music Prize for her forthright debut album, Speech Therapy in 2009.
Her belated follow-up finds her in similarly feisty lyrical form, albeit in a slightly less appealing fashion.
Produced by Kwes, the album fuses a hip synth sound that sounds genuinely fresh with elements of ‘80s rock, classic hip-hop and urban grime. This works really well when channelling her anger at the world’s ills – from the breakdown of local communities (as evidenced by last year’s London riots) to global disrepair.
But the more intimate reflections on the destruction of relationships fail to resonate as well… maybe because they sound overly familiar in both what they’re talking about and how they’re conveyed.
That said, Debelle remains an appealing presence who is more than capable of delivering at least three or four genuinely great cuts across the course of an album. And her ear for instrumentation that transcends her own urban roots remains intact. This does boast crossover appeal on several occasions.
Early evidence of this comes on album opener Studio Backpack Rap, which is packed with witty lyricism, rapid-fire vocals and slick beats and synths. It’s extremely catchy.
Live For The Message, meanwhile, adopts a more straight-forward hip-hop approach, allowing Debelle to reflect on individualism and the freedom of speech and identity theme that underpins the album courtesy of lyrics such as “honesty is proud so we fly it like sparrows, we’re trying to get the knowledge laminated like the pharaohs”.
Blaze Up A Fire, featuring Roots Manuva and Realism, seems to be another offering inspired by the London riots last year but it was, in fact, written before those events. With a chorus that decrees “sometimes you need to blaze up a fire”, it would seem a reactionary offering that’s destined to polarise… perhaps even more so once Roots Manuva drops his own rap and takes it further into urban territory. But there’s a potency to the lyrics that makes it equally difficult to ignore.
More straight-forwardly searching and provocative, however, are the double whammy of Collapse and Eagle Eye, which define the album at its finest. The former, in particular, offers a bleak view on humanity’s future based on current world events (from war to oil spills and natural disasters). It’s accompanied by an atmospheric back-beat and some moody synths, which only heightens the urgency and potency of its message. It is arguably the album’s standout track.
But Eagle Eye, featuring Realism again, also adds some dark piano chords and subtle beat arrangements to more social and political rhetoric.
Sun Dog, meanwhile, draws the album to a close on a sombre, reflective note that marks a really interesting change of pace and style for Debelle. The instrumentation is stripped back and almost orchestral thanks to a sombre violin running throughout, but nicely so, thereby allowing her flow to really hit home.
Put together with Collapse and Eagle Eye, it ensures the album comes to a really strong finish.
Alas, on more general offerings such as Angel Wings and Elephant, which take a more personal view, Debelle lacks as much identity and the words, feelings and delivery are more generic. Admittedly, there are still some nice musical arrangements to accompany them but they fail to carry as much weight as the album’s very best moments.
Download picks: Live For The Message, Collapse, Sun Dog, Eagle Eye