Album Review: Toddla T – ‘Watch Me Dance’

Now more versatile than on his debut

The preamble to the second album by Sheffield bass-dispenser Tom ‘[a]Toddla T[/a]’ Bell was going perfectly smoothly until an unscrupulous German hack leaked it online. Benjamin Jager of Backspin – naming names is fun, isn’t it? – might have only sped up an inevitable process, but taking a degree of control out of Bell’s hands was always going to rile someone who’s elevated himself to one of the UK’s most esteemed production auteurs. It’s a shame, because ‘Watch Me Dance’ is an album whose content in no way deserves to be overshadowed by a squabble about dickheaded piracy.

Mischievous single ‘Take It Back’, driven by Shola Ama’s belting delivery, referencing late-’80s house and late-’90s garage, turns out to be something of a red herring as far as the rest of ‘Watch Me Dance’ goes. It does, however, neatly herald the spirit of an album that’s both a stirrer of emotions and an incitement to bug out on the dancefloor. The ability to craft tunes with a foot in both camps might be the biggest leap Toddla has made as a producer since ‘Skanky Skanky’. The release of that debut album in 2009 unveiled a self-evidently prodigious talent, but one who chiefly used his talents to be as brash and direct as possible.

‘Watch Me Dance’ keeps that to a bare minimum: there are still mighty sinkhole basslines and clattering clusters of drums, but there are also legit contenders for pop radio, widescreen electro-soul and a hefty wedge of modern Jamaican dancehall. We say hefty… we could as easily say album-defining. Partly recorded in Jamaica, the record gives Wayne Marshall (‘Streets So Warm’, a lament for his nation’s gun-choked culture) and Timberlee (‘Body Good’, which mentions her “fat punani”) airtime to chat away as per. Even the two token blokeish bangers are indebted to the island’s musical heritage.

The title and opening track is a vehicle for [a]Roots Manuva[/a], who’s always seemed as influenced by toasting as by rapping; Serocee, a longtime Toddla associate, rides the uncaringly tearout ‘Badman Flu’ in berserker fashion. Although they’d hardly test the suspension of even the crappiest Fiesta, there is the odd pothole nevertheless. Róisín Murphy does her standard vocal on probable future single ‘Cherry Picking’, but the metronomic dubstep thud and early millennium poptimist chorus are weirdly rote and uninspired. Closer ‘Fly’ combines [a]Ms Dynamite[/a] and olde worlde dub reggae. In seemingly channeling a sound from before his time (1985), Toddla draws less aces than when he’s spinning platinum from the strands of his teenage bassbin obsessions.

It’s fair to warn you about all the Auto-Tuned vocals too – although they’re pretty prevalent in latter-day dancehall, they’re as divisive an effect as they are in rap, and if, say, ‘808s & Heartbreak’ drove you up the wall, this might not be a markedly better experience. For a collection of songs which leans so heavily on one island’s sonic heritage, there’s something ineffably British about ‘Watch Me Dance’. In that way, it calls to mind the act [a]Toddla T[/a] is probably compared to the most: [a]Basement Jaxx[/a]. Although, pound for pound, he can’t quite match them – not at their peak, anyway – if we’re gonna bring up touchstones he’d doubtless rather we avoid, ‘Watch Me Dance’ is a sight better, and less awkward, than [a]Major Lazer[/a].

More usefully, it finds [a]Toddla T[/a] cementing an identity as a producer – 10 years from now, it might be seen as an important stepping stone to greatness.

Noel Gardner

Order a copy of Toddla T’s ‘Watch Me Dance’ from Amazon