Boy in Da Corner
t age 18, on the threshold of adulthood, Dylan Mills finds himself stuck in a chaotic environment that he is unable to comprehend. "It was only yesterday that life was a touch more sweet," he reminisces in "Sittin' Here." The track embodies the hopeless inertia of the ghetto: Mills smiles, but it fades: "Things are sweet but they could turn sour." It's the same old story -- cops, drugs, violence -- and the spacey synth work neatly captures a moment of forlorn expectation, of waiting for something bad to happen because there's nothing else to do. By looping simple, contemplative, barely melodic elements throughout the track, Mills perfectly emblematizes the cyclical nature of his existence. It's a theme that runs throughout the album: being trapped by never-ending cycles, as if born into some sort of horrible machine.
Mills dances through the machine under the name Dizzee Rascal. The machine has no name. After all, it doesn’t care. It merely carries on, uncaring, unyielding, unconscious. The machine is the platonic ideal of rationality. You put something in, and it spits something out, without any digression, moodiness, contemplation: the model of efficiency. That's why machines have such a hold on society and culture today: they're more efficient than we can ever hope to be because they are more rational than we can ever hope to be. But who runs the machines? Who builds them? Sure, you can replace plenty of jobs with robots and computers, but people are an integral part of any mechanized system: simultaneously the weakest and strongest link (so much for strict Western binaries). The way to resolve this issue, the way the machines finally "win," is we become eminently rational creatures. Bell rings: change class, punch out, or evacuate building. Emotional turmoil affecting productivity: install latest patch (Prozac, Xanax, Paxil). We are demographics, statistics, labor sources, consumers, numbers, ones and zeroes -- the by-products of a rationalized society based on consumer capitalism.
Some may wish to claim (indeed, many have claimed) that the underclass, outside many of the strictures of The System, represents some sort of ideal state of nature (or something close to it) full of beautiful freedom and anarchy. It's total bullshit of course: no one can enjoy their "freedom" without the necessary food, security, entertainment, and leisure that the upper classes possess. Yet the underclass does possess a unique perspective on the human condition in a rationalized world. The bell rings, they change class, punch out, evacuate building and still go home to suffering. Whatever the input they provide to the system, the output is always inadequate. In light of the bourgeois consumerist fantasies disseminated by mass media, the underclass system is essentially nonsensical, even Kafkaesque (to use a hopelessly overused term). Some vague, alien presence inherent to the system torments the underclass without discernable cause.
This is the corner that Dizzee is caught in. This is the battle that he fights. This is the music that he has produced in reaction to it: The bass line for "Stop Dat" lurches like a beast, leaning into you, but it's not like a thug stepping to challenge you at a club. No, this beat is inhuman, blunted into something that attacks without reason, without thinking. It just goes, aggressive but not sentient. Drum claps and sample snippets fire off in off-kilter sequences, like pistons in the engine of the machine. The only emotional context is Dizzee himself, a very different Dizzee from the previous track. His voice has been twisted into a yelp, a strangled growl, as he tells everyone to fuck off. "When I activate my screw-face gimme space, screw-face means let me breathe." But the beat won't let him: it's too fast, too chaotic, too claustrophobic, and Dizzee has no choice but to ride it until the end (which he does with aplomb).
The most compelling tracks on Boy in Da Corner tackle Dizzee's confused emotional side, confused not just because of his youth, but also because emotions seem remarkably out of place in such a dire environment. Especially love -- it makes you vulnerable, it costs too much, it seems pointless in the midst of an uncertain future. In "I Luv U," Dizzee deconstructs the bourgeois conception of love: it has no real function in the slums. The robotic female intonations of "I love you" are wonderfully ironic: Simpletext cannot "love", and neither can Dizzee. The words swirl around atmospherics that could have been cribbed from Goldie, isolated, naked, stark: exposed as hollow snippets of verbiage. And then that bass hits. It's bigger than the bass of "Stop Dat," exaggerated by the amount of space between elements in the sequencing. The lyrics, a tête-à-tête between Dizzee and an unknown female MC describe a relationship based on stalking, harassment, and mind games. "Is that your girl?" "No, that ain't my girl." "She got juiced up." "Oh well." It's a game to see who can be the hardest, the most blasé, the most emotionless. Any kind of attachment is a weakness. This isn't exactly new territory for rappers, but it's often portrayed as a result of machismo. Dizzee's description is far more complex -- love is just another dangerous game, another trap, another thing sucking you into the machine.
Most of Boy in Da Corner's most compelling moments come from this uneasy interaction between irrational youth and ultra-rational mechanized society. I remember what I said the first time I heard "I Luv U": "This sounds like 2010." The lineage of Dizzee's production is easily traceable through British dance music, but it's been mutated and rebuilt into something without easy reference. And the reference is never human: distorted drum machine kicks, metallic bass churns, icy strings: there is NO SOUL HERE. And that's the point. Dizzee dances adeptly over the harsh sequences, easily matching every beat with vibrant flows, immersive slang, and his unique voice. It's no easy task to stay above the overdriven beats, which threaten to drag Dizzee down into the gears should he let down his guard. He must keep moving or he will be trapped, a neat metaphor for the record which could be Dizzee's ticket out of the streets. Thus, slower, more contemplative tracks ("Brand New Day," "Do It") always stand adjacent to the harshest tracks ("I Luv You," "Live O"). It also beautifully captures Dizzee's schizophrenia -- he must grow up, enter the real world, enter life, but he continually pulls back, doubts himself. Such life is no life at all, really. "It's real out here," he plaintively states in "Do It," it's TOO real. The will to survive is perhaps the only "real" feeling we have left, and only the underclass experiences it on any regular basis. Dizzee, like any 18-year-old, dreads having to face reality, and his reality is far more "real" than many. He's just a boy, on the doorstep to adulthood. But this step is far more momentous for Dizzee than most. Through it could lead unwanted pregnancy, violence, death, and also potentially fame and fortune. This coming of age while straddling the two worlds of postmodern industrial capitalism makes Boy in Da Corner compelling. And the ingenious music that conveys this odd situation (much of it produced by Dizzee himself) keeps Boy in Da Corner in permanent rotation in my CD player.
Reviewed by: Gavin Mueller
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01