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Only Happy When He’s Sad

 

Roots Manuva: Awfully Deep

Big Dada, 2005

Rating: 4.1

 

Posted: March 5, 2005

By Laurence Station

South Londoner Rodney Smith’s Roots Manuva persona is hip hop’s answer to Constantine. Turmoil, be it inner conflict or external pressures, is the engine that drives him. From his 1999 debut Brand New Second Hand through 2001's stunning Run Come Save Me to his latest, Awfully Deep, Smith has consistently touched on the angelic/demonic nature of his character. While it’s doubtful he'll ever reconcile the two, Awfully Deep proves Smith's most explicit examination of the demons tormenting him, making for his most intensely measured album, more precisely executed and less spontaneous (and, ultimately, less fun) than the first two.

On the swirling, feverishly knob-spinning title track, Smith announces “sanity’s back on the line again” and relates a brief stint spent in a psychiatric hospital (at the urging of his management company, no less!) in which he was assailed by “crooked doctors and kinky nurses.” Later he claims “I seen the devil sit right before me” and “I screamed for Jesus but it was no use.” The dense “Mind 2 Motion” attempts to “shake away the hurt,” while the moody “A Haunting” acknowledges there’s no escaping from the “railroad of one’s mind.” Smith’s internal struggle could easily overwhelm Awfully Deep and make the album a self-pitying downer.

Fortunately, thanks to the positivism of key surrounding tracks and the sharp wit with which Smith delivers his literate rhymes, the end result is more cathartic than regressive.

“Cause 4 Pause” chooses to “celebrate the expedition,” while the grooving electronic centerpiece “Colossal Insight” is refreshingly honest: “This could well be my last LP / I've had a good run / I've made a few Gs.” (Obviously Smith’s contract might not include a “good run” escape clause, but it’s nice to hear a heavyweight rapper at least entertaining the thought of going out near the top of his game.) The gothic, big-stepping “Too Cold” manages an infectious hook out of “sometimes I hate myself / sometimes I love myself” and finds Smith admitting that he’s no UK rap savior, castigating the media for blowing his importance all out of proportion. The aggressively defiant “Chin High” stares down the world’s problems: “Chin high / Puffed chest / We step right to it / The choice is there, ain’t no choice but to pursue it.” The hypnotically meditative “Thinking” deals with coming to terms with life’s ups and downs.

And then there’s the club factor. “Move Ya Loin” boasts a steady, laid-back rhythm, as well as guest rapper Lotek, whose frank, sandpapery flow adds some welcome balance to Smith’s stentorian baritone. The jumpy, hyperactive “Rebel Heart” is the obligatory dance track, offering the expected shout-outs, propulsive grooves and some genuinely inspired rump-shaker lines like “Holy Ghost come and take control.”

“The Falling” offers a laundry list of worldly terrors, trotting out “enjoy what you’ve got” platitudes and a lame beat to produce the one truly dispensable track on the album. Fortunately, that’s hardly a deal-breaker. Awfully Deep is another strong release for Smith, and while it doesn’t sport the effortless flow of his debut or the rich variety of Run Come Save Me, its considered assessment of where he’s been and where he might be heading (retiring the Roots Manuva persona, perhaps?) helps the album more than live up to its title.

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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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