After bouncing between homeless hostels in her formative years, British rapper Speech Debelle (born Corynne Elliot) developed the ambition and inspiration that serves as the driving force behind much of the female MC’s work. Writing poetry since the age of 9, Debelle has also gained inspiration from other musicians such as Mary J. Blige, TLC, and Michael Jackson (particularly Jackson’s song “Human Nature”). Her debut album Speech Therapy was released on Big Dada Recordings in 2009 and won the Mercury Prize Award for best album from UK and Ireland that same year. With the win, Debelle became the first rapper to earn the award since Dizzee Rascal won the honor in 2003. In February 2012, Debelle released her second album Freedom of Speech. Her track “Spinnin” will be featured as one of the official themes of the 2012 Summer Olympics.
On first listen, it’s easy to peg London MC Speech Debelle (birth name: Corynne Elliot) as the female version of The Streets. After Mike Skinner’s introspective hip hop/garage hybrid took off in 2002, a whole new wave of British musicians followed a similar template, speak-rapping tales of everyday struggle over music influenced by UK dance trends and mellow jazz instead of anything produced by P Diddy. But Debelle is more than a mere pastiche, and her debut Speech Therapy channeled A Tribe Called Quest, Roots Manuva, and even rapper Left Eye of TLC in spots, earning the coveted Mercury Music Prize for best album in the UK and and Ireland in 2009. Like so many musicians who grew up in the 80s, Debelle drew early inspiration from Michael Jackson: rumor has it that she started rapping seriously for the first time after hearing his classic “Human Nature.” She was also an early convert to the literary world, writing poetry at the tender age of 9, and you can hear her fascination with internal rhyme all over her work. Debelle isn’t a showy rapper; instead of relying on pure braggadocio like so many young MCs, she prefers a smooth, relaxed delivery, her nimble voice riding the beat and never overpowering the eclectic backing tracks. “Studio Backback Rap,” the first single from her latest album, Freedom of Speech, is a bold and confident blast of classic boom bap, a squelchy synth-and-snare led banger that manages to rhyme “lesbian” with “thespian.” It also interpolates Notorious B.I.G.’s classic “It was all a dream” line from “Juicy,” changing B.I.G’s reference of Word Up magazine to the British rag Smash Hits. It’s a clever nod to the past, and a reminder of Debelle’s serious skills on the mic. On the other end of the spectrum, most of the music on her debut veers from standard hip hop instrumentation and samples for a live band feel complete with Afropop guitars, woodwinds, and a few well-placed trumpet solos. “Spinnin’” rides a plinking piano line and stuttering percussion, Debelle singing “The world keeps spinnin’/Changing the lives of people in it/Nobody knows where it will take us/But I hope it gets better, better, better” before languid horns enter the mix. It’s music that is both uptempo and uplifting and a perfect antidote to the often formulaic world of popular hip hop.