In 11 tracks and 51 minutes, Dave has not just shattered the glass ceiling surrounding the UK rap scene, he has soared to prophet level. Stylised as a therapy session, Psychodrama is as raw and honest as albums come; serving as a beacon of guidance for anyone struggling within a wide spectrum of difficult and traumatising topics. When artists like Dave come around we need to cherish him, this truly is one of the most essential releases this country has seen in a long time; Psychodrama is the UK rap album of a generation.
When I was 20 years old, I was at university struggling to stay on track with my deadlines while also having a nightmare attempting to balance my own well-being with my professional goals. Compare that to Dave, a South London born rapper who, at 20 years of age, has just released Psychodrama; his eagerly anticipated debut album after spending the past couple of years gaining fans as famous as Drake and Hans Zimmer. Releasing the album is enough of an achievement, but it’s the content that will make the world stand up and take note.
Rap and grime in the UK have seen a honeymoon period these past few years, with icons of the scene such as Dizzee Rascal, Skepta and Wiley paving the way for greatness. Stormzy released his widely acclaimed debut in 2017 and has since won BRIT Awards galore and will headline the legendary Glastonbury Festival this summer. Dave himself has been creating history recently, becoming the first grime artist to achieve a UK number one single with his 2018 banger Funky Friday, but this album is about far more than accolades.
Back to my initial point on age, think back to your times at 20 years old; the struggles of finding yourself and worrying about leaving a lasting impact. Well Dave has the exact same issues going on, he documents so on the opening track Psycho, a four minute utter bar-fest that challenges perception but above all else is ultimate self-reflection as Dave discusses life, love, loss and all things in between. His flows are cold and his lyrics are even colder; serving up confidently witty metaphors (“three G’s in the ring call me Alvarez”) and harrowing signs of fragility (“you ever fall asleep ’cause you don’t wanna be awake? In a way you’re tired of the reality you face”) all in the same track. As far as mission statements and announcements of arrival on an album, Psycho is the absolute benchmark from now on.
The album’s main point is to be built in the form of a therapy session, as though Dave is telling his therapist a new tale of struggle with each song. I absolutely love the interluded moments where you hear this mystery voice of the therapist as he discusses progress, the internal battles Dave is having to face and the importance of sharing; it feels like an essential element to the album rather than a wasted concept, something which has often been the case with ‘therapy-style albums’.
Hometown pride is a big theme of this album, namely in the second track Streatham which is where Dave grew up. He uses this track to discuss the difficulty of being raised in that area; whether it be conflict and subsequent prison time for his friends, or the cold-hearted attitudes of teachers who never gave their students a prayer of succeeding. Societal bashing from those perceived above Dave’s standing features regularly on Psychodrama and really is one of the more prominent talking points to take from this. Environment is a stripped back piano ballad about the music industry, questioning the ongoing nuances between audience and artist, as the life of an artist isn’t all flashy cars and diamonds on your neck. It’s a wonderfully refreshing and raw take on an urban scene that has gained far too much bad press without none of us really seeing the bigger picture. If a young successful black man who came from nothing to achieve fame wants to buy a few nice things, then who are we to judge him?
Hometown pride not enough? How about the lead single Black, a celebration anthem about his skin colour and heritage. This song received backlash from British media for being offensive towards white culture. Why? Because we as a nation are living in a time where people are scared of things they don’t know enough about; songs like this one are needed to educate the world to think before they speak. Dave cherishes his family tree and rejoices in his status as a black male, celebrating the glory of an entire race without saying a single bad word about anyone else; so where’s the issue here? “The blacker the berry the sweeter the juice, a kid dies, the blacker the killer the sweeter the news, and if he’s white you give him a chance he’s ill and confused, if he’s black he’s probably armed you see him and shoot.” Tell me that lyric doesn’t totally summarise the current state of crime within our society today, I dare you.
I need to talk about this. Lesley. Track Nine. Eleven minutes long. I pose to you this: if you find a better storytelling song than this then I plead for you to show it to me, and even then I think you’ll be a liar. The truth is simply this whole song is a lyrical highlight reel as Dave tells us all about a girl called Lesley and her story with an abusive boyfriend. I wouldn’t even dream of spoiling it for you but trust me, this is exactly what the world needs. Dave has taken aim at every single abusive man in a relationship and offered solitude for the victims of these awful crimes. Best part about this? It was released on International Women’s Day; so listen to every single word he says here, Dave literally never misses a beat. I could talk about this song and it’s power forever but the truth is that for it to truly resonate, you need to hear it for yourself. All I will tell you is that it might just be the best song a UK rapper has ever made.
His features on here are sparse but stellar to say the least. Burna Boy delivers an ice cold hook on Location while Ruelle works magic on her beautiful chorus and outro on the aforementioned Lesley; proving to be the perfect atmosphere setter for a song so poignant. The real shock comes in the form of J Hus on Disaster, and not just for his performance levels. J Hus is currently serving a prison sentence for carrying a weapon in public and was assumed to be on musical hiatus while serving this time, but he joins Dave on here to produce absolute fire. Dave and Hus bounce back and forth on the gritty grime track, with each artist appearing to push another further and further the longer the song goes, it is British MC’ing at its finest.
The production on this album spends most of the time being pretty low-key but that just further helps Dave take centre stage with his lyrical performance; with piano keys and very subtle trap drums acting as the main blueprint for Psychodrama. The excellent keys on Screwface Capital work hand-in-hand with the vocal sample, while the drum arrangement and horn samples on Location help aid the understated but catchy sound the song demands. That isn’t to say there aren’t huge production moments on here; I mean just listen to the beat switch on Psycho and the pulsing synths on Disaster, or perhaps the bop flavour on sure-to-be FIFA track Voices.
Dave put his life into this album, that much is so apparent; and the result is nothing short of stratospheric. He epitomises the album’s mantra and concept in this one personal message: “I’m a careful, humble, reckless, arrogant, extravagant n**** battling manic depression, man I think I’m going mad again, it’s like I’m happy for a second then I’m sad again, and to my fans, the reason I could get to this, you’re my drug, the instrumental my therapist.” He uses this album not only as his own ballast, but also as something people can rely upon; no matter what colour, creed, gender or sexual orientation you are. These are very real feelings portrayed by a very real artist. Dave, thank you so much for this groundbreaking, innovative album; this truly feels like a moment, something far more than the limitations of music. This is a landmark callout moment in a toxic environment that needs to change.