Out of Steps: Dizzee Rascal makes a hard climb toward mass appeal.
Out of Steps: Dizzee Rascal makes a hard climb toward mass appeal.

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Dizzee Rascal could’ve been a contender. In 2003, the British rapper-producer’s debut, Boy in Da Corner, won the Mercury Prize, which is kind of like winning the Grammy Award for Album of the Year—that is, if you’re from the United Kingdom or Ireland and much more of an up-and-comer than, say, Herbie Hancock. Boy in Da Corner also scored a Top 10 slot in the Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll, a year-end best-of list that was regarded at the time as one of the best aggregates of pop-music opinion. Only one hip-hop album (OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below) and one debut (Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever to Tell) placed higher on the list—and neither was an import. You could say that Dizzee Rascal released the best album of 2003 that didn’t come out domestically until January 2004.

All of this seemed like the prelude to something big, but album sales didn’t follow critical opinion. According to Billboard, Boy in Da Corner sold poorly in the United States, or at least poorly by Hummer-and-Dom Pérignon standards (58,000 copies). Its follow-up, 2004’s Showtime, did even worse (16,000 copies). Perhaps as a result, his third and latest full-length, Maths + English, is only now getting a proper American release—almost a full year after it came out in Britain. The delay is somewhat ironic this time around, because the new album seems like Dizzee Rascal’s attempt to correct his U.S. sales trends. Throughout much of the largely self-produced effort—including its rap-metal single, “Sirens”—the quirky 22-year-old strives for a more Americanized sound, and, in doing so, suggests that Brit-rap’s future wasn’t as bright as some predicted.

Or at least it wasn’t that bright over here. It could be that Americans aren’t willing to accept hip-hop from a country that isn’t the United States. But the problem has most likely been the music itself. As his appearance on 2005’s Run the Road compilation made explicit, Dizzee Rascal is very much a product of grime—an underground British phenomenon that, aside from the fact that its MCs rap over electronic beats and use street slang, has little in common with mainstream hip-hop. Grime’s rhythms owe more to techno and dance hall than anything on the Billboard charts, and its melodies tend to be an assortment of blips and bleeps, the sort of sound effects you might hear coming from an old Sun Ra record or a newfangled coffee maker.

Maths + English, by contrast, benefits from a production style that’s less frenetic than most grime recordings. Nowhere is it more evident than on “Where’s Da G’s,” a song about a wannabe gangster that features guest verses from Bun B and the late Pimp C of the Texas act UGK. The track sounds like it was written with Bun B in mind: His slow Southern drawl matches the slackness of the Dizzee Rascal- and Cage-produced beat, which, unlike the brittle programming on Dizzee Rascal’s earlier tracks, is mostly kick drum. “Are you ready to go to war?” Bun B calmly asks. “Are you ready to shoot to kill?” Dizzee, of course, can’t match Bun B’s ­gravitas—UGK has been making records since the boy in the corner was a toddler—but, if he isn’t at his best as a rapper, he’s at least more accessible at lower velocity.

Question is, does anyone want a more accessible Dizzee Rascal? His initial appeal had everything to do with the lack of weirdness in hip-hop in the early part of this decade: He was the refreshing antidote to bling-obsessed MCs who didn’t care enough to rhyme over a cool beat. So what does he go and do? Well, “sell out” isn’t the right term. No matter how much Dizzee Rascal wants to cross over, he’s still got a voice that Randy Jackson might call “pitchy.” His tone is that of a young person who’s been bullied to the verge of tears or exasperation, which is why he’s at his best when he sounds somewhat wounded. On “Paranoid,” a dark, dub-inflected highlight, Dizzee Rascal asks, “What’s my path/Am I in the right lane?” That he would even raise the question makes him vulnerable in a genre where vulnerability is seldom an asset. Which might explain why “Paranoid” is sandwiched between “Where’s Da G’s” and the self-­explanatory “Suk My Dik.”

Jarring as it is, this sort of transition between the private Dizzee Rascal and the public Dizzee Rascal has always been a part of his music. The first song on Boy in Da Corner (“Sittin’ Here”), for example, is a first-person narrative about depression. What makes Maths + English different is that the public Dizzee Rascal seems to be taking over. He might admit to some shortcomings, as he does on the ­electronica-tinged opener “World Outside” (he’s only seen a “couple of figures,” and it’s difficult for him to “climb the chart”). But these insights are few and far between. The upbeat disco track “Da Feelin’” is more typical of the new album’s themes. “You’ll be pleased to be reminded that the girls are looking fine,” he raps. “And apart from money that’s the only thing that’s on my mind.”

Except it’s not. On “Hard Back (Industry),” the MC gives this advice to young rappers: Stay original and “keep loving what you do.” If I had to choose, I would say that the latter lyric—in which Dizzee Rascal cares as much about what he does as what it will buy him—is the more honest of the two. But, either way, he’s in a tough spot. Maths + English is probably too much of a thematic hodgepodge to appeal to a mainstream that is used to monolithic personalities and probably too cloying to appeal to an American audience made up of Anglophiles and alterna-types. Which is too bad, because, though hardly a triumph, the new album is anything but unlikable. Were Dizzee Rascal not saddled with outsize expectations, Maths + English might be seen for what it is: a transitional record from an artist whose career deserves a second act.