As the Bible has shown us, saviours tend to have a rough innings. By the time Rodney Smith was getting used to his ‘Brit-hop’s Second Coming’ mantle, a grimy cloud was already looming. While the Martian club-dub of breakthrough anthem ‘Witness (1 Hope)’ rang louder than any UK rap forerunner, his croaky tones were quickly drowned out by the rowdy onslaught of garage and grime that would trump his stylings as the nation’s urban buzz. His ensuing depression yielded 2005’s ‘Awfully Deep’, where his cocky sarf Lahndahn swagger was replaced by a disappointingly gloomy haze of introspection and bitterness.
On his last album’s lead single, ‘Colossal Insight’, he grumpily warned “this could well be my last LP”. But thankfully Roots has taken stock, lifted his chin up and made some new pals for album four. In what can only be seen as an attempt to keep in touch wit di’yoot, the 36-year-old relinquishes total production control for his first group effort. In step two frighteningly fresh faces, UK dancehall’s hippest rookie, Toddla T and, even more intriguingly, the new King Midas of electro-pop, Joe Mount, aka Metronomy.
If Rodders was investing in cool, it’s paid dividends. The glitchy bedroom bashment Toddla brings on ‘Do Nah Bodda Mi’, is a well-needed serotonin hit for the disheartened Brixtonite. The lethargic drawl that shrouded his recent efforts is gone, leaving a batty-winding explosion of ruff-neck slogans and ping-pong riddims that could slip in next to a ’91 Shabba Ranks tape-pack cut. When placed next to their other collaboration, the downright daft new single ‘Buff Nuff’ and self-produced sunny skank-fest ‘Again And Again’, it’s clear this is his gnarliest record to date. A pale-faced beanpole from Sheffield has brought out his inner rude-bwoy: who’d have thunk it?
Usually as thugged-out as cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, Metronomy is the album’s surprise gangster on ‘Let The Spirit’. Roots’ falsetto soul chants and sturdy flow are set against a quivering electro-gospel backdrop, making a righteous hoodie hymn, and the album’s stand-out track. “Reinventing the wheel was never part of my remit” he tellingly explains on ‘It’s Me Oh Lord’. While an ambitious selection of productions have reinvigorated his approach, as the album rolls on, the same solo call-and-response hooks, and methodical, self-effacing verses show that, vocally, he’s content sticking to familiar, functional turf. His lack of rhyme evolution suggests he’ll remain a Chihuahua in the global kennel of hip-hop. However, here we’re reminded who’s the UK’s big dawg.