Dizzee Rascal begins “Sirens,” the first single off his third LP, Maths + English, rhyming in the rudimentary, predictable style of early hip-hop. In his metered lyrical attack and on-the-beat guitar stabs, the young East Londoner’s flow is boring and safe: a cliched glitch in Dizzee’s impressive, if brief, catalog. For the same rapper who dips and weaves spastic but controlled verses in new songs “Paranoid,” “U Can’t Tell Me Nuffin’,” and “Pussy’ole (Old Skool),” a Wiley slam over that tired Rob Base “It Takes Two” sample, this reliance on prototypical hip-hop formulas shows a laziness and lack of dedication.
But then again, maybe it’s not that at all. Maybe it’s more calculated and understandable. Grime, with its hyper sixteenth-note beats and even more frantic, aggressive, and oft-unintelligible rhymes, is a style that, in order to achieve commercialism, must do it through conformity. This is what makes songs like “Fix Up, Look Sharp” and “Brand New Day,” off Dizzee’s 2002 debut Boy in Da Corner so fresh; he places his odd, explosive new voice in an accessible package.
So it’s forgivable that on Maths + English, Dizzee holds back a bit. It brings out the humanity that Dizzee’s wild, aggressive approach can cloud over. “Hardback (Industry)” is a didactic tale of the record business that’s both world-weary and charming: “Here’s something that I should a stressed early on/ Don’t go spending all your money till it’s gone/ ‘Cause the tax man’s gonna want his paper when it’s due/ And there’s nobody above the tax man — especially you.” Other songs, like “Where’s Da G’s,” slow down Dizzee’s flow; at first you’re waiting for it to veer toward his characteristically uncontrollable pace, but then you realize when he steps back a little, everything has more room to breathe.
In the end, “Wanna Be” turns out to be an album highlight, and not because of Lily Allen’s bubblegum chorus but because of how Dizzee exercises his pop sensibilities and doesn’t overwhelm the simple track. You still won’t understand every lyric, but the pseudo calypso beat and the warmth that grime usually dirties over will give you a reason to keep trying.