Tariq Goddard delivers his verdict on Ocean Wisdom’s debut album
For listeners of a certain age, myself for example, who feel all of their forty-one years without yet regarding that as old, there exists an uncontrollable reflex when listening to music made by the very young. A mental registrar of the trail of influences on offer, and then a reluctant dismissal of the end product for being less than their sum. In a terrifying presentiment, or perhaps confirmation, of old age and invalidity, it becomes harder to infer what the purpose of these acts adding so little to what they love is, however blameless they are for having been born “late” in the history of musical evolution. This kind of grand reduction is an easy and cheap exercise: no one can feel venerable about practising it, and as being “positively” disposed to something is usually of no help (and the young don’t care what the fuck you think) the generational conversation dies stillborn in the traps.
Something like the reverse of this happens when encountering Chaos 93, the debut album of Brighton rapper, Ocean Wisdom. Spotting the influences is a delayed afterthought, mainly because the music is too arresting and immersive to bother doing so, and partly as where they are audible there is nothing derivative or hand-me-down about their employment. Traditionally British hip-hop has experienced many modifications, and has been at its most popular when transformed, or put at the service of another genre, be it Trip-Hop or Grime. Often playing it completely straight has drawn unflattering comparisons to the States, beginning with Derek B (LL Cool J adapted for laughs) and even the more credible Hijack (whose first album was produced by Ice T’s Rhyme Syndicate). Sharing a language with America, and rapping in it, meant there was never going to be a short cut to establishing a homegrown identity. Ocean’s trajectory, however, owes plenty to those who have tried, moving through Rodney P, Skinnyman, Roots Manuva, and his contemporaries on High Focus, a British equivalent of Def Jux, who, like that label, mentor the sort of boundary pushing hip-hop that musically and lyrically can end up anywhere.
As with his label mates Dead Players and Dirty Dike, who produces and guests on the album, Ocean combines the whispered introspection of Trip-Hop, with the speed and severity of Grime, embracing a similar Pound-Land realist approach to his subject matter. His is a lyrical universe that has emerged under the shadow of Sports Direct and reduced expectation aspiration, where Park and Ride is the new public space, and Red Bull and Vodka the refined drink of choice. Here hip-hop’s traditional braggadocio is deliberately undermined by shrill jackdaw mockery and relentless sarcasm, this is hip-hop that takes the piss. While the form is often faithful to the canon, there are cheeky nods to NWA and Dre, they’re inhabitants of a parallel universe, the weight of history all but thrown off as Ocean chatters away with confident invention, his caustic observations sharing more with The Sleaford Mods or Mark E Smith, than Jay Z and Nas.
As a rapper Ocean revels in busy and wordy compressed rhymes, flaunting his jerky erudition and quick intelligence, ‘watch me pitta pasta to different parts of a written pattern/plus alliteration a wicked blag for a sicker stanza’, while inverting the genres usual tropes, ‘fuck bench pressing, I cover my food in french dressing’ in obedience to its basic one: keeping it real. The verbal hyperactivity is deliberately out of step with the backing, which is mostly minimal, spooky and spare, the mixture of speed and space weirdly hypnotic, nowhere more so than when the music slows to an orchestral crawl. The sprawling exercise in thinking aloud that is “Heskey”, which seems to be about a kind of motorway-ennui, and not the giant striker who kept Robbie Fowler out of Liverpool’s starting eleven, is so unusual that Ocean leaves all comparisons behind.
In a year where the new isn’t always original, and the truly original not always likely to be popular, with two musical legends dead, and the pressure on those who still live to be interesting enough to deserve to, Chaos 93 is vital work in a maturing genre by a young talent, which should be as gripping a listen for those who know they’ll love it, as it is necessary for those who think they won’t.
Tariq Goddard is a British novelist and co-founder of Repeater Books.