... and I always wanted a UK hip-hop album that spoke to and for the whole nation, not just its own metropolitan clique, and I always wanted UK hip-hop to fulfil its potential to become one of our definitive musics on a national scale, to escape its confines and become, truly, pop music, the finest aim it could ever have had. I always wanted to feel as though UK hip-hop records were speaking to me as much as I probably would have felt had I lived in London, and I was always frustrated by how they didn't quite (The Brotherhood's Elementalz came close in its time, but five years on the constant stream of "hey! we're British" references can grate, and I never feel the need to go back to it anymore). But, just before Christmas, I remember being over at my cousins' flat, where it's 1996 forever and the dust and the ancient Select free CDs can entrap you, and hearing Chris Moyles playing Mark B and Blade. Suddenly, I realised there were no territories left that could sustain immunity. And now there's this. My ambition fulfilled.
A baby's voice. Then slowly-rising, ominous music that could fit on a mid-80s BBC documentary about the Norman Conquest, only this is a whole other conquest, a whole other odyssey, and one of equal importance to contemporary Britain as that conquest was back then. "Carried on an eastern wind, it hit these rocky shores and was embraced ... some dispelled it, others cast aspertions, but floating on air currents it mutated, soaking up culture and environment ... so widespread was the attack, from countryside to cityside, that people said it couldn't last ... stronger, prouder, with fresher and firmer footholds ... from one rocky shore to highland, lowland and moor ... sure within itself, and with a new-found confidence ...". Somewhere later on (the intro"Let Me Down Easy", to be needlessly specific), "peace to my people, countryside to cityside, it's not what's inside, it's where you reside". Oh yeah! All of a sudden, all the distancing refusal of previous UK hip-hop records to speak directly to me (for which read: those where I am both spiritually and geographically) seems like something from another, distant world. I want Britain, 2001, to be remembered like this.
"Cordless Mics @ Twenty Paces" I've already euologised over elsewhere (http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/motivation.htm), and I for one would not rescind a single word of that purple prose. The yearnings to get out of London in "Domestic Science" aren't in any way cowardly or backward; they're forward-looking, compelled to refresh oneself, the perfect definition of Countryman's nationally-relevant vision (the very title of the album pretty much demands that it should be so, and oh how it lives up to it). "The Killing" showcases Rodney P at something close to his finest, an atmospheric, airily funky, passionate track without a moment wasted.
"Inner City Folk" is in its title alone a symbiotic masterpiece; it isn't just the rural connotations of folk music that make that phrase so wonderfully striking and jarring, it's also (actually, far more) the way the word "folk", referring to "the people", is virtually always used to refer to some imagined, salt-of-the-earth non-metropolitan proletariat conveying what are euphemistically referred to as "traditional common-sense prejudices" (William Hague's beloved "mass mainstream majority", "real people", "common-sense revolution", ad nauseam). Think of how often lazy football commentators refer to, say, "the good folk of Suffolk" when commentating on an Ipswich Town game, and how utterly unthinkable it would be for those same commentators to refer to "the good folk of North London" while covering an Arsenal game. So it's the ideal title for a song whose lyrics assert the humanity and kindness and fundamentally positive values of people in London, their appreciation of their environment and their urge to get out of it at moments of tension and uncertainty, which shows the pernicious lie of the right-wing press that urban and rural Britain are "at war" for the nonsense that it is. And it's a perfect title for the track's sound, as well, a mellow, heat-stroked guitar haze which could fit very well into the Radio 1 playlist. Potentially, this is UK hip-hop's first credible Top 10 hit.
Tracks like "Double Red" and "The Junkyard" are street tales at their most listenable and compelling; not a moment of exaggeration or pseudo-gangsta fronting, and the samples of political writings and thoughts on the social development of Britain over the last quarter-century are absolutely perfect, always moving and fitting exactly with the music itself, never jarring or ranting or over-earnest. "Fingerprints of the Gods" and "Twilight of the Gods" (familiar to some of us from last year's Word Lab - http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/wordlab.htm) lead up to a stunning closing sequence talking in terms of "north, east, south and west" (you sense they're thinking of the whole country, rather than just areas of London as the London Posse would have been thinking of in 1990; oh, how far have we come in that time) and pondering "Things that I've seen make me wonder just where I belong", a question in itself answered by what we've just heard - "belonging" has evolved into an infinitely flexible concept, and this is one of the great records of the new, endlessly-shifting British identity. Even the comparatively weak tracks - I could take or leave "Where My Mind Is At" - withstand repeated listens, and even the most specifically London-centric lyrical content (the cross-city tribute of "Dedication") never excludes me, never makes me feel as though I'm not part of this gloriously inclusive vision.
Really, the brilliance of Countryman just is. It speaks for itself while at the same time speaking innumerable truths about Britain as a whole right here, right now. One of the very best albums so far this year, in any genre, from anywhere. You know what to do.
Robin Carmody, 18th May 2001