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Dave – Psychodrama Review

March 26, 2019 | Posted by David Hayter
Dave Psychodrama
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Dave – Psychodrama Review  

There’s a void at the heart of UK rap and no one seems willing to discuss it. After all, who would want to spoil the party? London’s glorious D-I-Y scene always sought street level authenticity; grime’s early years were defined by an opposition to American Bling. This was the scratchy, overly impetuous, buoyant but amateurish sound of south London’s looming estates. It called upon a rich West Indian heritage and a love of live MCing, pirate radio and the dodgy raves of the brief UK garage experiment. Who could have imagined that, nearly a decade and a half after Roll Deep introduced the world to a lorry load of raw talent, that the scene would finally conquer the charts and (with Drake’s endorsement and Skepta’s undeniable “Shutdown”) the world at large.

In 2019 the London sound, now the UK sound, has influenced artists as far a field as Calgary and Cape Town. The scene has bone fide superstars who drop bangers on a monthly (if not weekly) basis. Skepta is a proven Wireless Festival headliner and Stormzy is set to make history by becoming the first out-and-out grime artist to headline Glastonbury (and only the third rapper period). So what could the UK possibly lack in 2019?

Well, despite some decidedly charitable reviews (the scene has amassed an incredible wealth of goodwill), grime has failed to produce any stone cold classic LPs. In fairness, the genre was never built around an album and tour model but it is glaring that while the hitmakers are plentiful, the UK has offered no response to Kendrick, Kanye or even Cole.

Asked to name the greatest start-to-finish grime record and most fans would still point back to 2003 and Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner (a star who was quickly jettisoned from the scene and has been forced to reaffirm his street level credentials). Sure JME (Integrity>), Wiley (Treddin’ On Thin Ice) and Skepta (Konnichiwa) have earned plaudits, but not even the biggest flag waving fan would dare mutter their name in the same sentence as To Pimp A Butterfly, Reasonable Doubt or Illmatic. If anything, the album has been an impediment to UK rap. They are at best a necessary evil, as few artists have truly tried to take the bull by the horns and make a timeless, thoughtful, document of their time.

Enter Dave. His name has been on the tip of all the right tongues for a couple of years now, thanks to healthy hype from both SBTV and 1Xtra, but the Streatham rapper has little interest in cashing in. Psychodrama offers no buoyant pied piper beats, no festival ready choruses and gives club DJs precious little to rewind or reload. Instead, Dave has conjured a loose, but complex, concept album.

“This is our first session. We’re just going to talk about your background. Where you’re from. Any issues you’ve been dealing with”. As the album opens Dave finds himself in the therapist’s chair (quite the admission in the masculine world of hip hop). At first it feels like a coy joke as the rapper launches a savage evisceration of his environment (“Psycho”), but this is no snide dismissal. Dave is going to delve into his psyche, tackling every aspect of the modern black British experience as he drifts from street level braggadocio and fatherless poverty to crippling anxiety and institutional racism.

Dave sets his stall out early with a masterful transition from glee to the stumbling sorrow of self-doubt in a single stunning line: “Brother I’m a careful, humble, reckless, arrogant, extravagant, probably battling with manic depression: man, I think I’m going mad again, it’s like I’m happy for a second, then I’m sad again”. Pulling no punches, Dave seeks to look beyond the veil. He captures and inhabits the armor that young black men have to wear to “protect their bodies” as Ta-Nehisi Coates so poignantly put it. But Dave goes further, explaining the psychological torture of having to constantly be on guard, perpetually projecting a steel edged, impenetrable masculinity (“You see our gold chains and our flashy cars/I see a lack of self worth and I see battle scars/He has to be with 20 man when he wears jewellery/You see it as gangster/I see it as insecurity”).

Not just one for introspection and isolation Dave is confident enough to tackle race at large on “Black”. The track has a syrupy instrumental sweep that aims for poignancy, but is undermined by its own stately gloss – which sadly recalls an advertising executive’s idea of sincerity. Still, if the production proves a little too cute, Dave’s lyrics strip away all pretention. “Black” is spiralling stream of consciousness connecting the scattered dots of unconscious bias and historic oppression from an opening line that echoes a familial refrain (“It’s working twice as hard as the people that you know you’re better than, cause you need to do double what they do so you can level them”) to the crooked hypocrisy of our media narratives (“The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice/A Kid dies, the blacker the killer, the sweeter the news/If he’s white, we’ll give him a chance, he’s probably confused/If he’s black he’s probably armed, you see him and shoot”). Dave’s chronicle of black struggle hits hardest when he moves beyond contemporary debates and embraces a historical sweep: “Black is people naming your country on what they trade most: coast of Ivory, gold coast and the grain coast/Most importantly, to show how deep all this pain goes: West Africa, Benin, they call it the slave coast”.

If launching a radio single specifically dissecting race and cultural appropriation didn’t assert his conscious credentials, then the staggering “Lesley” doesn’t so much draw a line in a sand, as open up a unbreachable fissure between Dave and his party hard peers. Eleven minutes. That’s how long Dave dedicates to this slow burning, spiralling, perspective shifting narrative about spousal abuse and what it does to a young woman’s psyche. At times it has a melodramatic self-serious quality that tends to undermine Dave’s best work, but it’s impossible to avoid becoming wrapped up in a rich and unflinchingly detailed narrative. There’s an incredible elegance to the way Dave flickers between straight reportage (“I remember viscerally, Jason pulling from behind me, now he’s gripping on me/White flashes, eye gashes, when he’s hitting me, see?”) and first person pleas (“I’m touched cause I’ve seen woman that I’ve loved or liked/Cry a little tear through a bloodshot eye/This shit’s awful, no matter what culture, it’s not normal”).

Suffice to say Psychodrama is not a light listen, but make no mistake, despite its unflinching brutality Dave’s debut is loaded with potential hits. “Location” featuring Burna Boy is already a smash hit with its smooth understated summer seduction vibes and knowingly bad jokes (“Girl from Indian, sweet as Nani/Head so good I’m speaking Guajarati”). “Disaster” is better still. Built on the back of a desolate and creeping beat, J Hus croaky bars set the tone for a hard edged, street crawling anthem. This is as close as Dave comes to a chart concession. He won’t dumb it down, but he will pull up his hood and play badman from time to time. Even when he does, as on “Screwface Capital”, his harder edged bars are laced with wry dissections of the struggle rather than thuggish glorifications of violence (“So many days that I starved myself, just to make sure that my whole family eats”).

“I’ve got a flame in my mind that I’ve got to fire fight”. This is Psychodrama’s core tenet. Dave is being driven slowly insane by the pressures of providing for his fatherless family while his friends die in the street or serve time. His blessing and his curse is that he’s shrewd enough to scrutinize his environment. The pressure to constantly convey a brutalistic masculinity and the weak cultural excuses for domestic abuse are remorselessly critiqued, but so are the societal traps: racism both overt and intentional as well as unconscious and institutional. In this sense, Dave sitting on psychiatrist’s couch is eerily reminiscent of that other great image in UK rap canon: a teenaged Dizzee Rascal slouched alone in the corner, just sitting and watching his world burn. This, after all, is the greatest tragedy: to be so aware, so proactive, so “woke”, but so helpless to change any of it.

So what’s a young man to do? The answer, according to Dave, is the same as it ever was: work harder, work smarter, work better (“I didn’t get 99 marks in English, cause I was faking it/I got 98, cause I don’t know what a vacation is”).

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
The grime/UK rap revival finally has its great start-to-finish LP. Kendrick Lamar need not sweat, but in Psychodrama Dave has sculpted an unflinching analysis of black British experience from the street up and the institutions down. This exploration of psyche tackles both the  projection of aggressive masculinity and spousal abuse as well as the long shadow of historical oppression and unconscious bias in the present day. Psychodrama is the album the UK scene needed, at times it's over produced and self-serious, but more often than not it's simply brilliant.

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Dave, David Hayter