Speech Debelle, Jazz Café, London


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The Independent Culture

“We’re definitely going to do ‘Spinnin’’ now,” Speech Debelle promises.

Well, get on with it then, stop stopping and starting. We’ve endured nine songs from the preachy, consistently impenetrable new album, Freedom of Speech, so please just cheer us up with a vaguely uplifting encore. After a lot of fussing we’re treated to a clumsy rendition of her perkiest song; so perky it’s been re-recorded by Dionne Bromfield and Tinchy Stryder for the first official song for the Olympics, “Spinning for 2012”. It’s a messy end to a patchy experience in front of a mostly distracted audience. The one thing that lifts this rambling performance are her terrific band who appear, at various times, to be channelling the likes of Arcade Fire, Radiohead, Spiritualised and Imagination.  

Debelle’s debut album, Speech Therapy, bagged the 29-year-old a much derided Mercury Prize in 2009 - she beat off strong contenders Florence and the Machine and Kasabian - and the earnest rapper was destined to go the way of other “winners” Roni Size and Gomez, and vanish. Well, she’s back with an angrier, more political album (a rare beast) and while it isn't as fresh and enjoyable as her debut, it is ambitious. The record, produced by in-demand Kwes, is certainly interesting enough to mean more albums will ensue: Free Speech, Figures of Speech, Speech Life etc...

There's definitely a place for Debelle, who spent her teen years in hostels and on the street, and she’s the exact opposite of a Simon Cowell drone. It's just a pity that her lyrics aren’t more refined, they lack the wit and invention of Jamie T or the loucheness of Digable Planets, and she lacks the stage presence and charisma of Ms Dynamite or Neneh Cherry. Her delivery isn’t grabbing the audience; it's perilously close to a jazz poetry session and anyone who's seen So I Married an Axe Murderer knows how ghastly that can be.

However, new tracks “Studio Backpack Rap” and the incendiary “ Blaze up a Fire” are definitely highlights, with belligerent (“ Speech is my sister, right”) rapper Realism joining in on the latter, a song that focuses on the UK riots. And “I’m with It” is enhanced by some sumptuous guest vocals from rising star Kadija Kamara. There are memorable moments here – including an inventive new take on Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is” – but too often her breathy rapping style falls flat and there are far too many “ shout-out” appeals of “Do you know what I mean”? Not, not really.