South London hip-hop vet goes deep on an emotionally weighty sixth album
Ever since Roots Manuva’s first foray into UK hip-hop in the mid-’90s, he’s been celebrated for what he isn’t as much as what he is. When the 43-year-old (real name Rodney Smith) released 2001’s lauded second album ‘Run Come Save Me’, its inspired mash of patois, homespun whimsy and dub rhythms could hardly have been less like Diddy, Ja Rule or the other American rap giants surrounding him. Smith has certainly battled personal demons in his time (his management attempted to have him sectioned a decade or so ago) and sixth album ‘Bleeds’ is often weighty, but sounds consistently alive, and inimitably Roots Manuva.
Nevertheless, his chosen producers explore fresh avenues over these ten songs. ‘Facety 2:11’ is engineered by Four Tet, and sounds like something MIA might have rejected back in the day for being too clanky (no bad thing, in context). With You, the new alias for Major Lazer founder Switch, moves from dub to trap with a quickness on ‘Crying’, whose beats turns a baby’s grizzling into a rhythmic device. Adrian Sherwood is handed the controls for three songs around the middle of the album, ‘Cargo’ the highlight.
Elsewhere, though, ‘Bleeds’ is disarmingly lush: opener ‘Hard Bastards’ might be an exasperated lament for a British underclass cast adrift, but those strings which kick it off sure sound posh. ‘Don’t Breathe Out’ (“The poor don’t relax/The poor do the funky soul clap … turn Jesus black”) toys with an unusually commercial, ’60s soul-esque motif. Most lavish of all is ‘I Know Your Face’: powered by keening cellos and cascading harpsichords, any hint of Roots’ cheekily British frivolity seems very far away, despite it being in evidence as recently as the previous song (‘One Thing’, which proclaims “the geezer called Jesus is the leader of a gang”). And while this could have added up to more gravitas than his personality can handle, it’s impressive. To borrow one of his old album titles, this is awfully deep.