The riots that hit London last month lend an unpredicted frisson of topicality to “Skid Valley”, the most sombre track on Roots Manuva’s fifth album. “The cost of life’s still cheap round here but the cost of living ain’t cheap round here,” rumbles the south London MC, adding more with resignation than pride, “Britain remains Britain.” The close proximity of chunky party jams like “Watch Me Dance” and “Get the Get” to such downbeat social commentary comes as no surprise from someone who has been following his own varied path since the late ’90s and is no less compelling on the cusp of middle age.
While younger, more commercially successful MCs such as Dizzee Rascal and Tinie Tempah know their way around the VIP room, Roots’ concerns are, as he spells out in Revelation, “daily grind and daily bread”. Recession and depression are recurring themes, set to shuddering sub-bass and Hitchcockian strings, though his oddball humour is never far away. Take the way the paranoid skank of “Who Goes There?” concludes with an eccentric take on upper-class English slang: “Chocks away, toodle and the pips.” The wry domestic angst of Wha’ Mek? is his most tender song yet while the bubbling urban psychedelia of “The Throes of It” is by some distance his strangest. Neither is anywhere close to being conventional hip hop. Moulding rap into his own idiosyncratic private language, Roots may be too old and too odd to capitalize on UK rap’s post-Dizzee gold rush but he still commands attention.