roots-manuva

Whether he likes it or not, Rodney Hylton Smith is gradually becoming a British institution. Unlike Doctor Who, Barbara Windsor or the NHS, however, the man who makes his art as Roots Manuva has proved himself to be an unfailingly reliable force over the last two decades. It comes as no surprise, then, that this, his ninth LP – and his first since 2011’s ‘4everevolution’ – continues a rich vein of form that stretches back to 1999 and that classic agenda-setting debut, ‘Brand New Second Hand’. While the album’s title, he suggests, is a bit of a front (“It’s an egocentric jest of daring to do things in the tradition of Jesus”), you get the feeling that there’s a deep-seated truth when Roots Manuva declares that he’s willing to, “bleed for the artform.”

Having worked on the collection for almost four years, it’s clear that Smith has used the time to obsess over the details contained within. As the beam of his creative torch falls, in turn, upon hip hop, grime, house and funk, he demonstrates a sonic sleight of hand that is unparalleled in modern UK music as a whole, never mind the narrow confines of hip hop.

Coming out of the blocks at ferocious velocity, opener ‘Hard Bastards’ is the perfect example of Smith’s knack of scattering diamonds in the rough, juxtaposing the aesthetic with the brutal. “And most broke cunts are all true bastards / And most rich cunts are even more bastards,” he rasps – the raw, awkward poetry offset by gentle strings and organ chords that complement rather than contradict and serve as a metaphor for Roots’s multifarious worldview. Next up, ‘Crying’ is a cold slice of Dizzee-esque UK grime as he seems to tick off his shopping list of genres, while ‘Don’t Breathe Out!’ takes the psychedelic soul of Young Fathers and polishes it even more brightly.

As it settles into itself, the second half of the album – comprising a quintet of tracks that begins with ‘Stepping Hard’ – is a warmer and more overtly personal affair than the first. There is pathos; the caustic trip hop of ‘I Know Your Face’ is a meditation on death that finds Roots laying himself more bare than ever before, but there is also closer ‘Fighting For?’, which sees the record out with an uplifting affirmation of the virtue of rebellion as Smith again showcases the spectrum of his talents and the dexterity with which he can weave between subjects both intimate and universal.

So while the album is frustrated and fidgety, agitated and angry, it’s also an energised call to arms and a celebration which is peppered with a wry, macabre sense of humour that tempers its statements and lends them a more considered weight. As he moves deeper into his 40s, things bode startlingly well for a man that could still be considered British hip hop’s finest upstart, and ‘Bleeds’ might just be the best Roots Manuva album yet.

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