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Boxed In


Dizzee Rascal: Boy in Da Corner

XL, 2003

Rating: 4.2



Posted: August 14, 2003

By Laurence Station

Gunshots and police sirens. There's nothing unusual about hearing such jarring sound effects on your average gangsta or hardcore rap album. Typically, the artist serves up a cocksure, blistering account of life on the streets, from the dog-eat-dog mentality it takes to survive, to the corrupt nature of those in uniform whose job it is to protect and serve their own best interests. Thus, hearing gunshots and wailing sirens on east Londoner Dizzee Rascal's debut album, Boy in Da Corner, is rather unremarkable, triggering a "so what?", knee-jerk reaction; after all, such effects are a clichéd shock tactic, done to death stateside since the end of the '80s and N.W.A.'s confrontational "Fuck Tha Police". But there's a catch: Dizzee (18-year-old MC Dylan Mills, who began his career in the UK garage scene as one of the Roll Deep Crew) is genuinely disturbed by the sound of those gunshots and blaring horns. There's no faux-macho posturing, no stories about how he defiantly looks death in the eye and doesn't blink. Dizzee Rascal is scared shitless throughout most of aptly titled Boy in Da Corner, and that fact alone makes it one of the most refreshing hip-hop records in quite some time.

Utilizing a frantically disjointed rapping style over looping, jackhammer garage beats, Mills paints a picture of east London that's fraught with danger. From the tone-setting, "what am I doing here" opener "Sittin' Here," in which "the police don't give [him] no peace" and he admits that "yesterday was a touch more sweet," to "Brand New Day", driven by an unnerving electronic bouncing-ball breakbeat and world weary observations like "8 millimetres settle debates," Mills examines life from a street level that differs vastly from that of last year's garage-rap UK offering, The Streets. Whereas Mike Skinner appeared more concerned with getting his monthly dole allotment or completing the latest level on the hottest new Playstation title, Mills wrestles with whether each day will be his last. Skinner focused on being bored and poor; Mills is just looking for a safe refuge to duck and hide.

Not that Mills doesn't have opinions on other matters. Boy in Da Corner brims with strong, articulate observations on a variety of social ills. "2 Far" accuses those in power of being out of touch with everyday people ("Queen Elizabeth don't know me/ How can she control me/ when I live street and she lives neat?"). The powerful, tragic "Jezebel" details a young girl who seeks acceptance through sex, only to wind up a teenage mother cut off and abandoned from those around her. "Wot U On?" addresses shallow materialism ("Love talks to everyone/ Money talks more"), and "Hold Ya Mouf" serves up the tried-and-true karmic promise to lawbreakers everywhere: "What you do will come back to you."

Amidst all the chaos and misery, however, Mills does find time to have a little fun. "Fix Up, Look Sharp", the most memorable track here, effectively samples '80s strokemaster Billy Squire's "The Big Beat" to create a moment of infectious excitement near the midpoint of the album, just in time to administer some much needed levity. And the closing "Do It" sends Boy in Da Corner off on a positive note, with Mills advising his peer group to "be free" and "do your thing."

If Boy in da Corner is noteworthy for Mills' precocious worldview, its production proves largely unremarkable. One would assume that Mills, coming from the progressive, underground garage movement, would buttress his raps with arresting beats. But unfortunately Boy in Da Corner relies on far too many stale loops and tired reverbs to measure up to Mills' distinctive rapping. The lyrically strong but musically bland "Cut 'Em Off" and the penultimate "Live O" suffer most as a result of sub par sampling.

Still, Boy in Da Corner is a brilliant showcase for Mills. And in that respect, it's one of the most auspicious debuts in quite some time. It'll be interesting to see, over time, what success does to the paranoia and fear Mills conveys so effectively. Boy in Da Corner is a troubling document of a space none of us would care to occupy very long. You're rooting for Dizzee Rascal to make it out alive, even if his art suffers for it.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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