Nick Hasted: Grim experiences give inspiration for the 'hip-hop Tracy Chapman'

Share
Related Topics

Speech Debelle told her producer Wayne "Lotek Hifi" Bennett to make her sound like a "hip-hop Tracy Chapman". For better and worse he succeeded. The 26-year-old south Londoner's debut Speech Therapy is a rap album rooted in the genre's respectable, conscious traditions – the lineage typified in the 1990s by A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, Common and Arrested Development.

The results, complete with tastefully applied cello and brass, could be damned as slightly worthy – "not black enough," as Debelle wearily guessed the reasoning must have gone behind closed doors, when London hip-hop station Choice FM wouldn't play her music. The irony of such first impressions – that the album is a little safe, approachable, suburban – becomes obvious when you listen to Debelle's words. The first line to cause neck-cricking double-takes at your speakers is from "Searching": "I know the blair witch I seen her yesterday, she collapsed naked in her bed with her needle in her crotches." The source of such visions, and stories elsewhere of searching for a female rival, knife in hand, come from Debelle's now well-documented three years living in hostels and dabbling in crime. The lyrics are understated, even when recalling abysses from which she might not have stepped back: "They say misery loves company and I'm so comfy I could fall asleep..." And not wake up, goes the unspoken next line, or ever surfaced to record a word.

Though lacking a great album, this year's Mercury shortlist had its share of confessional and confrontational artists, typified by Florence + the Machine's sexual battery fantasia "Kiss With a Fist". The Machine's Florence Welch, Bat for Lashes' Natasha Khan and Glasvegas's James Allan are also all nominees whose artistry flared partly because of an absent parent, and it's Allan, not the list's much-touted multitude of women, who is Debelle's truest soul-mate. Glasvegas's "Daddy's Gone" has its twin in Debelle's "Daddy's Little Girl" – both ruthless lancings of life-long, heart-deep pains. Debelle's lyrics are more detailed and retaliatory, imagining her absconding father grey, old, used-up and pathetic. It's fair exchange for an emotional hole that means, as she raps, "I'm affected anytime anybody leaves." It's a song of generational relevance.

Speech Debelle looked ecstatic receiving her Mercury Prize last night. But history suggests long-term success may be a struggle. Just ask 2002 winner Ms Dynamite – articulate, challenging, pop-savvy, and unceremoniously pointed to the knacker's yard with her second album. Most Mercury winners who have arrived out of the blue (Talvin Singh, Gomez, Roni Size, Antony and the Johnsons) have struggled to replicate their success. Debelle's uncommercial formula – "too black" or "not black enough", depending which side of the moronic musical ghetto you look over – won't help. What shouldn't be underestimated is her iron will and tough artistry. "I've gotta smooth my edges/ eat more veggies," as she pep-talks herself on Speech Therapy. Her grim experiences are her art's fuel, not its whole story. She has a voice which, in a fair world, we'll hear again.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

£60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Left in limbo: Refugee children in a processing centre in Brownsville, Texas  

Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Rupert Cornwell
Harman has said her gender affected her employment  

Gordon Brown could have had a woman as deputy PM. He bottled it

Joan Smith
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?