MsJudged Blandishments by Tom Jennings
[published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 23, November 2005]
Ms Dynamite, Judgement Days, Polydor, 2005
Tom Jennings judges Ms Dynamite’s second album a mismatch of unremarkable smooth music and remarkably self-indulgent rant.
Exploding out of a vibrant UK Garage underground in 2002 with A Little Deeper, Ms Dynamite injected conscious womanist ire and exuberant streetwise mischief into the ever-moribund mainstream of British popular music, with hit singles like the anti-bling ‘It Takes More’ garnering industry awards and highly creditable sales. Since then, things done changed (slightly) thanks to her success, and record company doors have opened a crack for talented and more-or-less socially-aware British female urban artists: in hip-hop (the superb Estelle, and M.I.A.’s innovative stylistics), the drum-and-bass-derived hardcore of Grime (Shystie, Lady Sovereign), and R&B (Jamelia and Terri Walker in addition to queen Beverley Knight). Now returning after babymother business, Dynamite’s new album is touted as a milestone as significant here as 1998’s magnificent Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was stateside. Sadly, Judgement Days squanders its good intentions and self-righteous fury on what amount politically to little more than lame liberal laments.
True, the blistering attacks in the album on the state of the world are refreshing compared to the prevailing pop gloss and glitter and ‘indie’ whingeing and posing. The title track opens by juxtaposing the collective abuse perpetrated by the global system on women, children and the poor with that experienced individually in personal relationships. But rather than exploring the connections, the different levels are simple-mindedly equated and those responsible castigated as sinners requiring absolution. And because “in permittin’ greed and violence, then we got blood on our hands too”, the appeal to conscience fatally misinterprets government, religious, corporate and military violence by confusing politics with voluntarist ethics. The obliteration of complexity and refusal to envisage alternatives persist through a withering anti-ode to an absent ‘Father’, the heartfelt ‘Put Your Gun Away’ and unflinching ‘Self Destruct’, culminating in ‘Mr Prime Minister’ – cataloguing the failings of representative democracy before fading into fatalistic whining:
“How many hundred seats in parliament / It’s so unfair but so clear / Don’t none of them represent me / And ain’t one of them represent my peers / And it don’t matter who we vote for, nor who gets in / The poor keep dyin’ and the rich keep livin’ / … You said things would change when you wanted our vote / But it stays the same, Mr Prime Minister / And we continue to die, Mr Prime Minister / Not a damn thing changed, Mr Prime Minister / Nobody hears our cries …”
Punctuating the focus on ‘issues’ are more wistful songs of love and loss, representing staple R&B fare. These are pleasant enough but scarcely distinctive, with neither the strength and depth of vocal rendering to convince as soul, nor much correlation with the anger and bombast elsewhere – helping explain why Judgement Days is so disappointing. The formulas of the best black music have been adopted, but to serve such clumsily imposed ‘lessons’ that the unselfconscious energy of the first album disappears. Instead of integrated thematics mingling private and public, hard and soft, love and pain – no doubt crystallised from the dynamic give-and-take of an organic underground scene – we have an awkwardly-assembled commodity.
Next time, let’s hope Dynamite returns to biographical reportage emphasising experience rather than cod-ideology, involvement over detachment, and complicity as opposed to priggishness. Thereupon witnessing and testifying to struggle articulates women’s complaints from a sympathetic ‘round-the-way-girl’ perspective rather than generalised feminist dismissal; representing ‘reality’ from the neighbourhood reflects social embedding rather than separation or superiority; spiritual suffering keeps redemptive hope alive for earthly change; and ‘talking to the enemy’ doesn’t just vent moral spleen. As a genuine emissary of your people, the pretence is of engaging with power – but actually you’re reinforcing grass-roots awareness of the pointlessness of the conversation unless it’s on your terms. At all levels, when this rich tricky texture is absent, mimicked or exploited as commercial gambit, hollow gestures result – or smug platitudes, if the arrogance of the artist overshadows immersion in signifyin’ tradition.
And unfortunately, Judgement Days just plays it straight. The subtly deceptive multiple meanings generated from black culture’s historically-honed rhetoric are squashed flat almost as thoroughly as manufactured stars cluelessly expropriating the artful kudos of blues, soul, funk, reggae and hip-hop. However, even your average NY studio pseudo-gangstas acknowledge the tragedy of selling their souls for the bottom dollar, exemplifying in lyrical lifestyles the all-round damage that’s done. Whereas this album’s simplistic blame-game echoes conventional discourses of the moral inadequacy of the poor, while imploring power to self-reform. Maybe Dynamite has swallowed the style-mag adoration, celebrity hyperbole and promotional hullabaloo – like Geldof and Bono et al, mistaking maudlin’ sentimentality for analysis, powerful fair-weather friends for influence, self-importance for seriousness, and media presence for strategic action. Hell, her pompous circumstance has even suckered her into corporate charitability and the SWP’s Love Music Hate Racism recruitment drive. Naff or what?
Further signs of commercial domestication have blunted the sharp edges of a bragging rapper skewering her peers with wit, now replaced by humourless bluster from the pulpit. Sonically, the first album mingled drum-and-bass-tinged urgency with inventive melanges of ragga and hip-hop beats to counterpoint expert rapid-fire lyrics, among which even the mellow cuts sparkled. Here the radio-friendly R&B-lite production from Chink Santana, Bloodshy & Avant and Reza Safinia is slickly competent but won’t light up any party outside suburban teenage bedrooms. In such markets holier-than-thou histrionics might pass for politics, and MTV consumers weaned on pretty vacant pop idols may not register her reedy singing as infinitely weaker than the trickster MCing she’s traded for preaching. Overall, Judgement Days is far too bland to pass muster as action thriller and much too po-faced to inspire. More damp squib than Dyna-mi-tee – despite her potshots at elected leaders – for now she’s lost the gunpowder plot.