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Sometimes an album becomes a landmark because the artist’s very existence validates a thousand agendas. In the case of Boy in da Corner, the first long-player by 19-year-old MC Dizzee Rascal, the British press quickly figured out that it had a keeper. The human-interest types usually spun the tale this way: The gifted but restless black youth Dylan Mills, already tainted by the ’hood, bonded with his white music teacher, navigated the pirate-radio scene, and self-produced an uncompromising record that won the country’s tip-top music award for 2003. The music writers, on the other hand, treated Dizzee like a holy grail: London’s first real answer to more than 25 years of American hiphop. If the Streets’ straight-outta-Birmingham Original Pirate Material was the U.K.’s license to ill, then Dizzee was its one-man Public Enemy, bringing the noise like nobody before him.
To boot, the same week that Boy in da Corner was released, its creator was stabbed several times during an allegedly unprovoked altercation while on holiday in Cyprus. Some speculated that the crime was committed by members of a rival London hiphop crew, but that almost didn’t matter: If the Brits had needed their own 50 Cent, now they had one. The record, meanwhile, was tough to ignore: Bleak and weird, full of off-kilter beats and snotty rhymes, Boy in da Corner was irrefutably original. Even if people didn’t fully understand the music, they usually felt obligated to praise it anyway. Almost by default, several big American music mags put Boy in da Corner in their year-end best-ofs. Some bandwagons, it seems, can be unstoppable.
The folks who got this one rolling deserve props for their instincts, though. The same thing could have never happened here. Until the past few OutKast-dominated years, whenever the vast majority of U.S. music critics latched onto an against-the-grain hiphop disc, it was by an artist who ultimately proved to be harmless, self-righteous, or preachy—Lauryn Hill and Arrested Development come to mind. Boy in da Corner, by contrast, boils down to the sounds of a single lonely soul. And, as happens in any relationship involving that kind of person, listening to it takes some patience. That’s why America’s pop culture machine will probably move on before it’s fully absorbed the disc. Besides, we had our Public Enemy 15 years ago.
It’s no surprise that Boy in da Corner has exactly one track with MTV potential. “Fix Up, Look Sharp,” constructed almost entirely on a speaker-shaking sample of Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat,” has an old-school glow, but its commercial appeal will undoubtedly be handicapped by Dizzee’s insider rhymes. “Flushin’ MCs down the loo/If you don’t believe me, bring your posse, bring your crew,” he proclaims at one point, “I’m old-school like Happy Shopper” at another. The rest of the heavily accented lyrics strut past with little concern for intelligibility anywhere but home.
The track that broke Dizzee on London’s club circuit, the jumpy “I Luv U,” is another entry point, but it’s twice as intimidating. Essentially a he-said, she-said tale of a guy and his would-be baby-momma, it conveys a sense of desperation and disintegration that goes far beyond the immediate conundrum. “That girl’s some bitch, y’know/She keep callin’ my phone/She don’t leave me alone/She just moan and groan/She keep ringin’ me at home/These days I don’t answer my phone,” Dizzee raps in a panic, yet the problem is bigger. First the girl gets you, then economic reality does: “Some whore banging on your door, what for?/Pregnant? What’re you talking about this for?”
The music is little more than bass-heavy blasts and tweaked-out keyboards, but it tells a story on its own—if Dizzee was trying to suggest a cacophony of ring tones menacing him at all times, he succeeded. And no wonder: In interviews, he has said that the song’s narrative is based on actual events, and that he eventually persuaded the woman to get an abortion.
Not all is chaotic and brutal on Boy in da Corner, though. For a guy who hasn’t yet hit his 20s, Dizzee has a surprisingly deft touch with sounds that other heads might completely ignore. Tim Smith, the storied white music teacher, told the Observer Music Monthly that his rambunctious student was a natural: “He was noticeably better than the others because his music had a clear structure and pattern, an amazing balance between rhythm, bass and melody.” That might be the most sober analysis of what makes Boy in da Corner so striking. “Brand New Day,” with its intermittent thumps, Asian-sounding chimes, and synth-pop-influenced blips and bleeps, begins as a mere curiosity but soon becomes a lesson in hiphop complexity. Similarly, the string-orchestra tones of “2 Far” and “Jezebel” sound debased at first but gain dignity as the songs build.
Dizzee himself told Blender that he believes his songs will find their broadest U.S. audience below the Mason-Dixon Line. “Real recognizes real,” he said, suggesting that the DIY beat makers of the South will readily identify with his methods. They might also recognize themselves in some of his beats: The polyrhythmic “Seems 2 Be” has more than a bit of Atlanta and New Orleans in its deep end, and the relentless “Stop Dat” features the sort of flickering high-hat and ragged hand claps that might get labeled “crunk” on this side of the pond.
Boy in da Corner hardly panders to anyone’s sense of hiphop community, though. Whereas the Streets’ Mike Skinner makes distinctly British rap music that is obviously proud of its heritage, Dizzee simply seems driven to unload every idea in his idiosyncratic head. It’s an enviable affliction: Because of it, he’s already convinced a nation that he’s the best it has to offer. CP