By Speech Debelle
I confess, I didn't actually own 'Speech Therapy' before the Mercury Prize awards and must have been one of many who hit iTunes as soon as they heard the results to get downloading. But, as the Guardian's Pop Guru Alexis Petridis' blog pointed out the following evening, that's more or less what the Mercury Awards are all about, i.e. getting a great but overlooked album the coverage it deserves.
I very much enjoyed the pundits writing off Speech Debelle at the start of the night, (great to see white girls talking knowledgeably about hip hop by the way, comparing Debelle to Guru without actually explaining the comparison, much like Debelle's own recent comments likening Jacko to Jesus) one must think some divine humour was at work, or at least sod's law that the artist written off by everyone would take it. Most oddly of all is not the fact that she won having been branded a no-chancer, but that now all of a sudden everyone's been won over and saying 'Speech Therapy' deserved the award. Presumably like me no one had actually heard it.
Onto the album itself. Being British and a woman is to be a member of two hip hop minorities, but it's obvious right from the start that Debelle isn't really interested in ticking the boxes: she favours real instruments over samples, grooving mellow drums over 'phat beats,' and just a very laid back feel in general. Which all makes for something that British music has been yearning for: something British and quality, *not *novelty. For so long British-ness has been a novelty unto itself. Think The Streets, Lily Allen, even to an extent Dizzee Rascal: sing/rap in an exaggerated English accent and throw in whatever cultural reference is hot at the moment (Facebook/Myspace/whatever.) Debelle has made no secret of these songs originating during her time living in and out of hostels and that comes across in a really raw and genuine way here, more from the Streets of London than the information Superhighway.
The repeated themes across the whole album, predominantly her relationship with her parents, tie everything together and add another layer of complexity to the work, as a journal of her experiences. You're left feeling as though you're looking into something that you don't ever see. If Debelle is putting up a front, she does it well enough to earn significant kudos for her song-writing, and if what's here really is her bearing her innermost, then she gets kudos for making a coherent, musically important, and socially poignant album from lessons so hard learnt.