remember when Dizzee's first album leaked. I huddled in front of my computer, waiting patiently for the album to finish downloading. I listened to it once, then immediately burned four copies. It was the kind of music that reminded me of why I had a craven dependence on high-speed internet and used record stores, the kind of music that shortened my breath, caused my stomach to jump into my throat and required me to share it with everyone I could.
Boy in Da Corner was startlingly new, fresh, innovative, and best of all, immediately gratifying. Ten-ton basslines crushed anything Lil Jon could come up with, and deciphering Dizzee's London-street patois became the stuff of conjecture and debate. Albums like this come along rarely, and I held no illusions that Dizzee's follow-up might equal it.
I certainly didn't expect the extreme shift in direction. Or rather, shifts. Dizzee's moved past much of what had my circle of friends playing "Stop Dat" and "I Luv U" constantly for a month. No crazy acid-crunk bass. Lightening up on the opaque slang. Few catchy melodies and fewer catchy hooks. The result is an album I'm more likely to hold out tentatively to a few friends than aggressively push on everyone I talk to.
Dizzee hasn't exactly jettisoned his signature sound. He's using the same batter of helter-skelter rhythms, 8-bit synths, Oriental melodies and his distinctive voice. But instead of cooking up a satisfying three-layer cake with every track, Dizzee prepares crepes, biscuits, a loaf of zucchini bread, maybe an apple tart—the point is, the icing is gone. Where an overpowering bass wreaked havoc like some cybernetic monster, Showtime's bass haunts the tracks like a maleficent wraith. The ghostly low end on "Learn" ominously wavers in and out of existence; on "Respect Me" it sounds like it's materializing through the walls.
Significantly altering the sound that won him critical praise and sold a quarter of a million albums takes some nerve. And that's what Showtime is about: Dizzee's newfound confidence. On the title track he reminds us he's "formerly the Boy in da Corner"; in the first single, the high energy "Stand Up Tall" he shouts "back off the wall." He's no longer the cornered teenager lashing out reactively. He's been on stages across the world. He's opened for Jay-Z. He's made paper. Attempts have been made on his life. Yes, barely 20 now, Dizzee has matured.
This kind of change can often become a death knell for anything compelling in an artist. After achieving fame through great struggle, an artist soon narcissistically focuses on his own success story, assuming the status of some sort of pop prophet. Dizzee doesn't go that far, but he does fill in some back-story: poor, bored, started making music, along with an ingenuous motivational philosophy about pulling yourself up, trying hard and never giving in. I can accept this. What bothers me is Dizzee falling into the reprehensible trope of snapping at detractors. I don't care about the So Solid beef. That’s why "Hype Talk" and "Knock Knock" are getting skipped over every time.
Dizzee's at his lyrical best when he's in a more playful and contemplative mood, which fortunately is often. The backing tracks reflect this: Showtime's melodies veer into childlike wistfulness, exemplified in "Dreams," a sly take on Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life". He unabashedly confesses to loving music, and he means it. He's a young man who's found his calling, and it's nothing short of exhilarating, even after the children's chorus wears thin. Better examples come from the end of the album. "Imagine" poses counterfactuals to what seems to be a lover, but could be a fan. "Imagine I showed you I could find another way of getting dough besides doing dirt / Let's blurt / Would you love me for giving you some hope or resent me 'cause your pride got hurt?" Dizzee draws a distinction, rarely made, between those who live the criminal lifestyle from necessity and those who do it out of misguided egotism, to "defend a couple square meters of pavement" (a wonderful World War I reference). "Flyin'" finishes the thought over Three-6-Mafia-inspired gothic piano and Kanye-lite sped up samples: "Everybody want to be ghetto but nobody want to be poor."
Ending the album on such a note reveals the avenues open for Dizzee. Showtime sticks him squarely between the street and the road to success. He's still Dizzee from the block, but "the world of the street don't ever seem new". If he abandons falling into traps set by backbiters and continues to focus on the interesting elements he's added to his productions this time around, there's no holding him back. At worst, Dizzee risks becoming a British Dipset: consistently interesting in sound and style, but often hampered by generic subject matter. Showtime won't get the spins its predecessor did in my CD player, but I don't resent it. Dizzee's hopeful and so am I.
Reviewed by: Gavin Mueller
Reviewed on: 2004-09-09