In the wake of last week's riots, the North London rapper Jermaine Scott, aka Wretch 32, is bound to be tagged as the Voice of Young Tottenham, though there's much more going on in his rhymes – both musically and lyrically – than that kind of simplistic link might suggest.
A few years ago, he might well have been caught up in such troubles, if the potted account of his youth as a series of failed criminal ventures in "Never Be Me" is anything to go by; but the track ultimately celebrates the confounding of expectations of failure, as does the hit "Unorthodox", where over a skanked-up Stone Roses sample, Wretch and Example promote a sort of positive individualism: "Don't sit in hell, look down that wishing well".
Black and White certainly offers the most detailed depiction of inner-city deprivation and temptation yet attempted by an English rapper. In the title-track, Wretch contrasts "the dark side of my life, where my heart weren't alive" with "the light side of my life, where my dreams came to life", a dichotomy explored further elsewhere. In "Let Yourself Go", he recalls the admiration he felt as a child for a local street player, a king since dethroned and doomed to re-live his former glories with cellmates, while his one-time queen struggles to survive. "Life's cold," he notes, "Man, how you let yourself go." Elsewhere, "Breathe" is a gripping portrait of sink-estate dystopia, the young protagonist nagged and chided by parents and police alike, nursing his determination to escape the 'hood, while "Long Way Home" offers a telling scenario of taking a cab home, past hookers, alcoholics and homeless. "These things used to burn me, now they're just part of my journey," he resolves.
Not that temptation is that easy to avoid: "Sane's the New Mad" is about lapsing into loose behaviour, with booze and loose women, "drinking away my fears". And in the album's standout centrepiece "Forgiveness", he acknowledges the failings that have left him "in a race with my own race". "I used to be a man of my word; now, time seems to have got the best of my sentence," Wretch reflects, seeking forgiveness for missing some parental duty, and for failing to look after his gran as well as he promised his dying grandad he would. But the lure of lucre is so over-ridingly powerful for the poor. "I only came for the music, but the more I touch notes, it's like the more I get stupid," he observes ruefully.
The grooves around which Wretch strings his stories don't baulk at bearing out the stark messages, often employing brutal beats, monotone staccato keyboard motifs, bristling clamours of synth noise and what sound like prog-rock fusion samples here and there, smoothed over by the occasional conciliatory Dido-esque vocal refrain. But it's Wretch's determination to find success by finding his own voice that's most impressive here: as he muses in "Don't Be Afraid", "If you got to stay grounded, how the hell you touch the sky?"
DOWNLOAD THIS: Forgiveness; Unorthodox; Traktor; Black and White; Long Way Home
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies