n 2001 Rodney Smith found himself not only nominated for but also hotly-tipped to win the UK’s
But Rodney found the clamour to praise him both suffocating and distracting. The phrase “guiding light of UK hip hop” or a derivation thereof became de rigueur in every press piece about him. Never one for self-aggrandisement either in his songs or in interviews, he didn’t understand or want the hype, and the combination of massive critical acclaim and comparatively modest sales (although still way above expectation for a UK rapper on a small label) was a source of anguish. If he’s as great as everyone says he is, why wasn’t he selling more records? Why didn’t he feel like the greatest? As the son of a Pentecostal lay preacher who believed contemporary music to be the work of the devil’s, Rodney Smith’s career in UK hip hop was never going to run too smoothly.
Truth be told, Roots Manuva is an acquired taste. Deep and rich in timbre his voice may be, his rhymes are not only distinctly British (this is the point in the review where I mention that he has rapped about “cheese on toast” and “ten pints o’ bitter”) but often distinctly ponderous too, especially to a mainstream hip hop audience used to the easy weirdness of Missy Elliott, the retarded catchiness of 50Cent and the double-fast tag-teaming of Outkast. Roots Manuva, by contrast, has often seemed forced, slow and awkward on first listen, and even though his ragga-tinged boom becomes an addictive delight with familiarity, many people can’t get beyond that initial stumbling point. The fact that much of Run Come Save Me is sonically outlandish, coupling rarefied ragga rhythms with cavernous dup space and 80s computer game FX, and while the idiosyncratic rhymes are never less than engaging, they’re rarely catchy from the off. Its speaker-troubling refraction, Dub Come Save Me, went even further.
But it’s been four years since Run…, everyone from The Streets to Dizzee Rascal to Skinnyman has been hailed as the saviour of UK hip-hop since then (Dizzee even managing to go one further and win the Mercury), and Roots Manuva, rumoured to be out of contract with Big Dada and suffering from mental health problems, looked to be a spent force in British music.
And so to Awfully Deep. Remarkably given the circumstances of its creation, the third proper Roots Manuva album is his best yet, his most fully-formed, emotionally engaging and sonically rewarding. Partly this is as a result of Rodney Smith relaxing about the creative process, ceasing to worry about consciously writing radio tunes and consciously not writing radio tunes, and getting to grips with his demons. Almost unprecedented in hip hop (meaning I can’t think of another example but you probably can), Awfully Deep is a candid yet confused admission of 21st century mental imbalance.
Sonically Roots Manuva has never been about straight forward hip hop, and Awfully Deep is no exception, maintaining his passion for the intricate, claustrophobic sounds of dub and electronica, but focussing the grooves and tunes tighter than they’ve ever been before. Bass is deep, everything else is widescreen (meaning there are black strips above and below, pressing in on you, narrowing your perception). “Rebel Heart” toys with garage, following the lead of “Mind 2 Motion” wherein Roots implores us to dance, to “Swing your pants” or “Swing your skirt” as appropriate, but it’s not an joyous command – the inference is that if we dance we might forget what troubles us, and lots troubles Rodney Smith.
Placing the album’s titular and most harrowing track second is a bold move, colouring perceptions for the rest of the album, laying things on the line early. Dealing explicitly with a period of institutionalisation of the mental kind, there is talk of being sent away to “The farm of the funny” where there are “Crooked doctors and kinky nurses who poke you in the arse and measure your shlong.” Rhythmically “Awfully Deep” could almost be a rewrite of “Witness (One Hope),” but four years on Rodney Smith is not the peak of fitness he once was; now he is paranoid, afflicted with insomnia, haunted and pursued by ghosts.
Although Roots Manuva maintains the sense of humour and absurd, parochial lyrical turns he has become known for, Awfully Deep is littered with unsettling juxtapositions. You don’t hear many rappers rhyming “money” with “tummy” for example, but neither do you hear many expressing the confused bi-polar swing as explicitly as Roots does when he sings “Sometimes I hate myself / Sometimes I love myself” on the chorus of “Too Cold,” a strange refraction of a West End musical which slowly reveals itself as a moral lesson on the misuse of money.
“Chin High” is another plea to face down troubles, this time by affecting the appearance of control and authority, and musically suggests his collaboration with Leftfield had more of an influence on him than previously obvious. “A Haunting” is a stark, cavernous, skittish dub-scape where Roots faces off with his demons once more, and “The Falling” is a morbid litany of evils, taking in cancer, violence, greed, depression and mass-murder.
Even the more upbeat tunes have dark cores, lead single “Colossal Insight” switching a catchy electronic pulse over a self-perpetuating downwards groove, and “Thinking” is an oddly blunt description of a troubled mind. “Toothbrush” is built over a nagging, delicious sub-aquatic electronic murmur, but its perplexed imagery defies a clear reading of what it might be about.
Roots Manuva says himself on “Colossal Insight” that he’s “Not the best MC / Not the worst MC,” he’s just a “UK black making UK tracks.” I daren’t lavish too much praise on Rodney Smith in case it takes its toll again, but he certainly has reason to be cheerful now he’s through the process of making this album. Because whatever anyone may think of Roots Manuva, whatever he may think of himself, Awfully Deep is a great record.