Speech Debelle is special. Soulful and raw, she blew up seemingly out of nowhere and delivered one of the most critically-acclaimed debut albums of the last few years, the Mercury Music Prize-winning “Speech Therapy.” Two years on, having ridden a rollercoaster through life since, she’s back, and she’s delivered a follow up that packs a powerful punch. If we see her first album as a confessional diary of trials and tribulations, then new album “Freedom of Speech” is outward-looking, high energy, powerful and engaged.
If the follow up has taken longer than people might have predicted then it’s been worth the wait. The 28 year old South London resident is in possession of the most exciting album of the year. “Freedom of Speech” sees her with a new look and a new direction, turning from introspection to face and engage with the world around her, spitting confident rhymes on the twin themes of revolution and love. Still brutally honest, yet a more mature and exciting record with lyrics to match, the new sound was shaped in collaboration with Kwes, a young South London producer who already boasts production for DELS, a record contract with Warp and a recent trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of Damon Albarn’s DRC project for Oxfam.
Speech, aka Corynne Elliott, started her creative life early on. Writing poetry at the age of 9, and musically inspired by artists like Michael Jackson, Tracy Chapman and Meshell Ndegeocello growing up, she’s an artist whose life comes through in her writing. Speech’s difficult experiences are unashamedly documented in her first album. Leaving home at 19, spending time living in homeless hostels, difficult love affairs, her proximity to real life is such that her work avoids clichés and forces open a space in which her voice can be heard.
You might be mistaken for thinking Speech has kept a low profile since her win, though if you’d been looking closely, you’d have noticed her cropping up all over the place. On the musical front, she co-wrote and sang on Bonobo’s ‘Sun Will Rise,’ taken from Ninja Tune’s 20th anniversary XX boxset, adding a haunting lyrical honesty in contrast to the original Andreya Triana vocals on the “Black Sands” album. Speech has also written the first Olympic song – ‘Spinnin’ for 2012’ (a take on her track Spinnin’) – featuring Tinchy Stryder and Dionne Broomfield – a commercial pop-urban collaboration, which hints at a playful relationship with the mainstream.
But a lot of her energy has been devoted to politics and social issues. In October she appeared on the BBC’s Young Voter’s Question Time in the week of the Conservative Party Conference. At the time she commented that, “This is a perfect time for us to voice our opinions in the hope of being heard.” Earlier in the year she was a proud ambassador for UN women, supporting young women to take control of their lives and urging them to celebrate themselves. This message was arguably most powerfully felt following her work with the Uservoice charity campaign, where she engaged with young offenders through workshops, discussing and examining their experiences of the criminal justice system and exploring ways to reduce Youth crime.
Discussion is central to Speech Debelle’s life as an artist and individual. Her Mercury win has enabled her to actively pursue issues close to her heart and as such, she has promoted equality and opportunity to people at the top with her frequent visits to Number 10 and Parliament, representing the voice of her peers; a voice which can be heard throughout her work. Her intention is to be around for a long time as an artist who speaks her mind and makes valid observations where most don’t.
Now Speech has concentrated her efforts on ‘Freedom of Speech,’ a sonic declaration of independent control over rhyme and reason. Her lyrics pack a powerful punch, punctuated with moments of arch perception and even hilarity. Her playfulness teamed with bouts of fiery attitude is a celebration of female power and identity, and as a result the album is self referential without being a contrived introspection.
Speech wanted her music to have more depth and, with her production partner Kwes, delved into new territory, experimenting with striking sound and instrumentation. The pair worked harmoniously in and out of the studio, and she mentions how his “editing ear” contributed to the overall quality of the album. The result of this meeting of two personalities is a piece of work that is hard-edged at times, punctuated with synths, programmed drums overlaid onto live beats, crisp vocals – all details that give something different on every listen. The album offers snapshot moments of sensitivity, and she is adamant that the urban narrative she presents is part of her conversational style. ‘My personality comes through a lot on this album, it sounds like my life. The whole thing sounds like those moments when you’re re-telling a story to your mate –and that’s just me.’
A first taste of the album came in the aftermath of this summer’s riots, when Speech reacted immediately, leaking the track “Blaze Up A Fire,” a song about political revolution written months before, featuring Realism and Roots Manuva (who joined her on her first album and is now back to feature on arguably one of its most powerful tracks). Going on record about the causes of the riots in a statement and on Twitter gave rise to heated debate, yet as the dust settled, there remained respect for her speaking out with insight, while others chose to stay silent. She comments that, “The album was finished, but when we were watching the news and seeing the riots first hand, we thought, ‘We’ve been talking about this in the album!’ I didn’t want people to think that I was trying to ride that wave; I wanted people to believe that it was a real product of my environment. I wanted to be provocative. I want people to be aware of the fire inside them.”
Speech’s worldview sounds exactly how it was written – as a series of moments, frantically documented day to day on her iphone and macbook during her travels around cities and in the studio. She describes the writing process as “the result of a lot of moments of excitement and high energy.” This energy is felt throughout the album. We are invited into her more angry moments, savvy and brooding, while keeping our heads bobbing on the beat. At times she addresses her personal life and the brief controversy surrounding her relationship with her label and life post-Mercury win, brief doses of acoustic guitar accompanying her stripped back vocals. The album can be heard as a gesture of defiance, taking a handle on real life. Divorced from pretentiousness and narcissistic obsessions, it sees Speech as a spectator within her environment, unafraid to discuss its banalities as much as its thrills. “This time the songs are freer, less self-conscious. This is an album for someone like me, I needed to express myself in a new way and this is where I am now.”
In short, ‘Freedom of Speech’ is an album that is forward looking. With a brief glance back to where she’s been, the focus is on where she’s going, and as a result the music shows her development as an artist in the most sonically interesting way. Honest, uncompromising, and ambitious, the unabashed lyrics are an ode to a girl who sounds like she’s emerged from the emotional cocoon of her first album, and come out fighting and more powerful than ever.
Speech Debelle is special. A rapper with heart and soul, punctuated with wit, moments of high energy and vulnerability, she has delivered an album full of surprises. Kwes’ synths are a perfect backdrop to a bassy and atmospheric backdrop, teamed with loops, disjointed beats and rich production. ‘Freedom of Speech’ is a declaration: she’s doing it her way and pushing boundaries at every turn. If you thought she was good the first time round, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.