When Dave dropped recent single “Black,” the negative backlash from white BBC Radio 1 listeners was swift. The song, which explores the racist undertones of British society and the double standards (at one point, Dave raps: “A kid dies, the blacker the killer, the sweeter the news”) that separate both white and black children, prompted many to accuse Dave of negativity towards white culture, with unsuccessful calls for the song to be banned from the BBC radio station. But this negative reaction must surely have felt like a big victory to the 20-year-old rapper, who successfully held a mirror up to Britain’s middle classes and taunted them with their own ugly reflection, revealing a toxic resistance to celebrating a culture that looks different to their own.
The song feels like a powerful moment for UK rap, which has arguably gotten a little too lost in the jagged electronics of grime and forgotten that it has a responsibility to reflect the issues affecting working class communities and not just make them dance. Many UK rappers are tiring of being tagged as “grime artists,” feeling like it’s a lazy label that prevents the art form from moving forward. Dave’s “Black,” built around inspiring lyrics such as “Black ain’t just a single fuckin’ color/ man there’s shades to it,” hammers home the idea that black people are not a monolith, and their art is not something that can easily fit inside a box. In many ways, the brilliant PSYCHODRAMA, of which “Black” is the centerpiece, feels like the start of a post-grime era, with Dave setting down a marker that will hopefully push his UK peers to speak from the heart and not just for the charts.
Fueled by the concept of Dave speaking to a psychiatrist and trying to move past glaring signs of PTSD, PSYCHODRAMA is a raw account of what it feels like to be black at a time where racism has crept back into British culture in a far more obvious way. “Streatham” is a raw origin story, while tracks such as “Location” and “Voices” powerfully explore the idea of drawing out pain and using self-care to exorcise your demons. The music here is heavy, occasionally bubbling over with industrial bass and the bounce of afro-beats, but primarily backed by stripped down, moody piano lines (Dave is also a talented pianist) and simple production, designed to let Dave’s introspective lyrics take center stage.
This works to stunning effect on “Environment,” where Dave powerfully explores the reality behind rap stereotypes. It’s a track that recalls Kanye West’s anti-capitalist anthem “All Falls Down,” with lyrics such as “You see all the groupie girls and think they’re Heaven-sent/ I see twenty-five minutes worth of empty sex” cutting through the bullshit and forcing listeners to look at rap’s excesses in a different light. Things go up a notch with the bleak storytelling of “Lesley,” a gripping, cinematic piece of storytelling that goes deep inside the head of a woman being abused by her partner. Very rarely do we find male rap artists spit from the perspective of a woman, and hearing Dave do it so convincingly shows just how talented and big hearted he is.
If these tracks sound heavy, well, that’s because most of them are. Fortunately, Dave understands how to switch things up too, with “Voices” taking on a lighter sound and “Location” designed to make you smile as well as cry. Dave deserves credit for maintaining a sense of humor even when delving into dark subject matter, with bars such as “My currency is Kenyan/ it’s in it for the long run” a hilarious breath of fresh air. The double entendre of “Copper for your head/ that’s the definition of a penny for your thoughts” on “Disaster” also shows how Dave draws from the knotty wordplay of influences such as JAY-Z.
If there is an issue with PSYCHODRAMA, it is that it often prioritizes emotive lyricism over the feeling of the music itself. When an artist such as Kendrick Lamar raps about institutionalized racism on “The Blacker the Berry,” it doesn’t just stir up your emotions mentally but also physically, with the intensity of the flow working together with the track’s urgent drums to make you want to jump up and down. Because so much of the music on PSYCHODRAMA is minimalist in nature, it can sometimes feel unexciting and in need of an adrenaline boost.
That said, PSYCHODRAMA is a consistently engaging record that echoes the complexities of being black in a broken Britain. It feels like a giant step forward for UK rap, especially when it comes to putting the thinking man’s lyricism back on the radio. But as brilliant as this record is, it’s not quite a classic, with Dave now needing to become as convincing musically as he clearly is lyrically, and learn to take more sonic risks with his production. We mustn’t forget that Dave is still so young and has plenty of time to to evolve as an artist. At just 20, he already looks and feels like a future great; his gaze forcing us to look at Britain from a different angle. And that’s more than most anyone his age can claim.