Getting out of the ghetto

Dizzee Rascal breaks down barriers in an increasingly segregated music scene

When was the last time you read a tabloid scare story about the evils of rap music? Last year, when David Cameron criticised the hip-hop DJ Tim Westwood for promoting violence, he failed to rattle even the most blue-rinse of Conservative Party members. The kind of fuss that surrounded the British group So Solid Crew at the start of the decade, let alone the scandal surrounding the birth of American "gang sta" rap in the early 1990s, seem to be things of the past.

This is not because rappers have toned down their act. "Sirens", the first single from Dizzee Rascal's new album, Maths and English, describes a brutal mugging from the standpoint of the teenage perpetrator, over a backing track composed of crunching, aggressive, heavy-metal guitars. There have been suggestions that Dizzee (his real name is Dylan Mills), who left behind an upbringing on the stricken council estates of Bow, in east London, to become one of the UK's most promising musical talents, is speaking from personal experience. Yet the single has made its way up the charts with barely a murmur of shock or disapproval.

Given that rap is now well established in the musical mainstream, it is perhaps inevitable that the genre has lost some of its subversive power. However, there is another explanation: British pop music has become segregated. What is now known as "urban" - in other words, mainly, but not exclusively, black - music is sectioned off to its own TV channels (MTV Base, Channel U) and radio stations (Kiss, BBC 1Xtra). As a result, the scope for social comment has been diminished, and the tendency is for only those artists who play up to the money-worshipping "bling" cultural stereotype to cross over into the mainstream. As Dizzee himself sardonically notes, nowadays "everyone likes a little urban story".

Maths and English is Dizzee's third album, coming after 2004's disappointing Showtime, which failed to capitalise on the success of his 2003 Mercury Music Prize-winning debut, Boy In Da Corner. With Maths and English, he has created that rare thing: an album that has genuine crossover potential but retains an honest and articulate voice. An expansive and ambitious record, it takes in a range of genres, from classic hip-hop and rock to drum'n'bass and funky house.

Dizzee has said that he wanted to create a record that broke away from grime, the innovative but limited UK rap style with which he made his name. On the album's moody, synth-laden opening track, "World Outside", he recounts how he used the recording studio as an escape and tells his peers, "there's a world outside of the manor [estate] and I want you to see it". The mugging described in "Sirens" is far from glamourised; the lyrics are riven with fear and vulnerability. On "Pussy'ole" and "Where's Da G's" he combines macho chest-beating with lyrics that deflate the clichés of gangsta rap.

The music, like the lyrics, reflects Dizzee's outward-looking spirit. On "Temptation", the vocal hook is a sample taken from a song by the rock band Arctic Monkeys. A line sung by the vocalist Alex Turner has been sampled and filtered through a variety of effects so that it floats over the track like the echoing and disembodied vocals of a dub reggae song. It is tempting to see this as a kind of reappropriation - rap and reggae samples have long been used to add a dash of cool to rock and pop hits. But this collaboration is better seen as a meeting of kindred spirits: both artists rose to fame as teenagers, and showed an ability to combine pop hooks with vignettes of everyday Britain - even if, for Arctic Monkeys, these took place in small-town northern England rather than East End council estates.

The collaboration with the singer Lily Allen, "Wanna Be", is a verbal sparring match in which Allen pokes fun at Dizzee's hard-man persona with such choice insults as "your mum buys your bling". It may be a canny commercial move to join forces with some of Britain's biggest pop stars, but it is also born of a desire to break out of the "urban music" ghetto.

Chuck D, frontman of the American group Public Enemy, once claimed that rap music caused so much offence because it was "teaching white kids what it's like to be black". Maths and English has a dual voice: it articulates, for those who do not know, what it's like to live in the inner cities; and for youngsters from Dizzee's background it explains that there is a way to break out of the "manor".

The message, however, would not mean anything without the music, which is underpinned by the powerful and complex sense of rhythm that characterised his debut. Give or take a couple of weak points (the puerile, Johnny Rotten-aping "Suck My Dick", in particular), Maths and English is a formidable statement that will connect as much with kids on the beer-soaked dance floor of an indie disco in Stoke-on-Trent as those at a dark, sweaty grime rave in Stratford, E15.

"Maths and English" is out now on XL

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent