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

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) pictured shaking hands with Libyan leader Colonel Moamer Kadhafi on 25 March 2004.  

There's nothing wrong with Labour’s modernisers except how outdated they look

Mark Steel
 

Any chance the other parties will run their election campaigns without any deceit or nastiness?

Nigel Farage
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste