You know that feeling when an album seems to radiate an air of self-confidence that none of its predecessors ever managed, would even have been capable of? When it presents a picture of a music, and an entire culture surrounding it, that knows it will probably never occupy the same prominence as in its nation of origin (and certain other countries) but nevertheless has come to terms with itself and its destiny (despite an appalling level of discrimination from the mainstream media which remains hellbent on excluding it from any definition of "Englishness" or "Britishness"). "Word Lab" is one of them.
On the surface, "Word Lab" is simply a compilation of UK hip-hop which is the first release on the new Wordplay label. But there's something more to it as well. Maybe it's the sleevenotes, which account early flowerings, mid-period disappointments, and now a gradual unfolding of the story, which is one of the most inspirational redefinitions of British identity (the most valuable and necessary UK cultural concept of the moment) we have. But ultimately it's the sheer quality of the music here that stands out. Roots Manuva's "Baptism (Original)", one of his best moments yet. The Nextmen and Ty's "Turn It Up A Little", which is already an anthem of the best kind (flowing, ineffably cool). The flute sample and softly irresistible funk of "War Zone" by The Creators and Tri-Bell and "Raindrops" by Numskullz. "In Memory" by Life, which some will doubtless perceive as an overtly "straight" account of the Stephen Lawrence case but is, for me, profoundly accurate, evocative of a sense of injustice and, most importantly, true. And the other tracks here - from the likes of Mark B & Blade, MSI & Asylum, Braintax and Aspects - aren't far behind. Admittedly, Blak Twang's "Masterchef Sandwich" isn't their best - Taipanic's cheeky persona, support for Arsenal FC and constant stream of specifically British cultural references are becoming slightly irritating. We still need his presence, but mentions of Ainsley Harriott somehow don't seem to fit with the rest of this album.
But it ends on a high. Lewis Parker's "The Variations", as I've already written elsewhere (http://www.netcomuk.co.uk/~tewing/2000_03_26_singlesa.html) is one of the best examples yet of his reinvention of hip-hop, which owes more to the moorlands of East Kent and a more self-controlled take on early 70s British mysticism and ruralism than any of the more familiar "urban" settings. Little more than a piano and a plain, umembellished rhythm with Parker's clear, perfectly-timed flow, it is the perfect conclusion, but just about everything here is pretty good. And everything is confident. It knows where it's going.
Robin Carmody, 10th April 2000
Don't See The Signs: