new flesh  understanding
Big Dada Records

Reviewed by Nathan Midgley

Brace yourselves; the improbable has happened. Again. If I'd said 'great UK hip-hop album' to you six or seven years ago you'd have laughed your tits off, unless you were well-placed enough to know better. Frankly, I know people that would still laugh their tits off. But this is 2002, and things have changed; after plugging away since '94, Manchester based beats label Grand Central can boast three big selling and highly acclaimed albums in Aim's Cold Water Music, founders Rae and Christian's
Northern Sulphuric Soul
, and the follow-up
Sleepwalking
.

London's Mark B and Blade chart sporadically with records that are pretty good or total arse depending on who they've collaborated with, the Scratch Perverts took the DMC World Team DJ Championship in 1999, and home-counties born producer Adam F recently cut an album with a lorryload of major names from, y'know, over there.

Story of last year, though, was Roots Manuva's second full-length release, a credible and creatively fertile hip-hop album that effortlessly stormed both the charts and the critics' end-of-year polls. Never shy of a guest appearance or ten, Mister Hylton Smith pops up yet again on this sterling effort from his labelmates New Flesh.

An instantly obvious landmark in British rap music, it's a record infused with same sonic dexterity and love of language as Run Come Save Me but arguably an even more remarkable achievement. If British hip-hop has fallen down anywhere it's been on a uniform darkness of tone - it's probably down to an overactive imagination but I'm convinced I can hear the same looming, coiled streets that spawned Joy Division in Rae and Christian's production, a spectre of Manchester only banished by sunny-side-up rhymes from visiting Americans (The Jungle Brothers on NSS, The Pharcyde on Sleepwalking). Roots Manuva's records, for their part, are drenched in the same monochrome paranoia that Tricky is renowned for.

Understanding borrows these tones but builds on them with a palette of brighter, warmer sounds owing more to Outkast's pneumatic fusion than to the drained, sun-starved neurosis of the British. In fact, there are points where this mix of rap, funk, soul, dub and dancehall - as clear a product of Britain's impossibly diverse dance scene as Basement Jaxx's Rooty - sounds like something you could actually (whisper it) party to. Zero Gravity's ultra-cool, shuffling neo-reggae gets intermittently sandblasted with the sort of high-speed rhyming rarely seen on this side of the pond, and More Fire bounces along on an irreverent tide of whistles, scratches and odd digital burps. While the set is probably too mid-tempo to rival Outkast, whose current 'best of' proves them the standard-setters in genre-bending hip-hop, there are enough smoother, soul-inflected tracks for
Understanding
to emerge a far fuller experience than New Flesh's peers have yet managed. On Communicate Blackalicious mainman Gift of Gab lays the latest in a series of biology-defying raps over an arrangement straight out of Urban Species' living room, while Transition takes a leaf from Attica Blues' book and builds a rippling bassline, gentle piano and stuttering beats into a top-drawer modern soul tune.

There's no tailing off towards the end, either. The short aside Aspirations Pt.1 resurrects the vocoder (again) but uses it to bend a voice up into oblivion with the sort of lunatic resourcefulness you'd expect from a Warp records maverick. What follows that is a standout track by anyone's reckoning; Mack Facts is driven by big, dramatic synth blasts and reverberating yells, an eruption of ballsy rapping and rushing, clustered beats. The presence of a seasoned US pro makes it a bit of a cheat, but it sounds almost like one of those huge, irresistible juggernaut tracks that Ghostface Killah and Busta Rhymes are always good for. Apart from a hidden track so far left of field you can see it out of your right eye, the album plays out on a lush mix of soul and hip-hop more than worthy of Lucy Pearl, with a killer hook and enough dancehall edge on the vocals to push it into the context of Wookie-style adult garage rather than US chart R'n'B. A tantalizing leap forward, Understanding throws enough ideas out there to make the coming years look very interesting indeed.

(c) Nathan Midgley 2002