As I observed a couple of weeks ago while reviewing Busta Rhymes' dismal latest effort, these days British hip-hop is by no means the poor cousin to its American elder brother, an opinion borne out handsomely by this solo debut from former New Flesh and Gamma rapper Juice Aleem.
Aleem hails from Birmingham, though judging by his splendid get-up on the sleeve of Jerusalaam Come – that fez and sword combination is so fetching for a fellow – he shares spiritual roots with both the more righteous of roots-reggae Rastafarians and with the quasi-Pharaonic, hard line Afrocentrism of X Clan. There's certainly a similarly low tolerance for the kind of gangsta slackness that has wrought such damage among Birmingham's black communities. In the Biblical allegory of "The Fallen (Gen. 15.13)", he proclaims how "Fully-grown babies need to learn how to speak again/The pre-Babel, antediluvian, pre-natal /The language that we use now, it proves fatal".
Aleem's sword-wielding cover shot has its most direct justification in "The Killer's Tears", where the Wu Tang atmosphere and martial-arts movie samples furnish the appropriate backdrop for the tale of righteous swordplay. But it's an implicit element right from the opening "First Lesson", where the staccato plucked bassline sets the tense mood as Aleem gives his rivals a dressing-down, his dismissive taunts jabbing and wounding with a fencer's practiced thrust and parry.
His interest in swords and blood and identity is clearly one of Aleem's driving concerns, with references to not just African civilisations but also to Ancient Rome in "Straight Out Of BC", his tribute to his hometown. But it's in "KunteKinTeTarDiss" that his notion of racial purity pivots most perilously on the cusp of the disagreeable. "I got no tattoos 'cos I'm not a Viking/I'm not Afro-anything, 'cos I'm not a hyphen," he notes before going on to diss rent boys, drug dealers, whites acting black, bacon, and "Asian kids behaving like they don't have a culture of their own", among other things: in another situation, it could be a column in the Daily Mail. Apart from the anti-baconism, obviously.
But questionable though it may be, it's this kind of assertion of cultural identity that gives Aleem his sting. Unlike many rappers, he knows exactly what he stands for, and it's not for the deracinated morass of bling and babes that characterises so much of hip-hop.
Musically, too, he asserts his individuality, with an electro-dub style that blends sparse clap-beats and organ-based reggae grooves with the tubular synth-squelches of dubstep, a sound at once ancient as prophecy and bang up to date.
Download this: 'First Lesson', 'The Fallen', 'KunteKinTeTarDiss', 'The Killer's Tears'Reuse content