“Stop all the pain. How do you stop all the pain?” Dave’s opens his debut album with an inquisition into his own mental health – and the next 51 minutes are spent encouraging the same self-evaluation from his listeners. Appending certain tracks with snippets of a therapy session, Dave leaves facetious hip-hop skits behind in favour of a weighty narrative of introspection that cares about individuals and the tensions that shape them.
And from these sensitive roots grew a work of ambition and resonance. Spinning off the success of the 2017 EP, Game Over, Dave’s PSYCHODRAMA is informed by the tangible vitality of grime and the vulnerability of spoken word, but it explores all of the dark crevices in between. This is rap music that refuses to simply satisfy and exhilarate. It’s determined to confront personal pain and social injustice across 11, palpable snapshots of urban life.
Dave leaves facetious hip-hop skits behind in favour of a weighty narrative of introspection
His flows slip seamlessly between deep, bouncing pulses and spare piano arrangements, with equal parts grit and wit. As we’ve come to expect from the prolific 20-year-old, the lyricism is slick, biting, and at points jaw-dropping; each track builds a tight web of clever phrasing and sizzling wordplay that serves his reflections on family and identity as well as it does his socio-political probing. “I turned a loss to a lesson”, he remarks on ‘Screwface Capital’, in a punchy reminder of the emotional costs of city life, and a confirmation that he’s as efficient in simplicity. The track plays out to a hypnotic, jazz-skewed keyboard solo, in one of the album’s most intriguing diversions.
each track builds a tight web of clever phrasing and sizzling wordplay
Brave in content and form, Dave doesn’t shy from brutal truths: he laments an abusive relationship for 11 minutes on ‘Lesley’, and caps his debut with ‘Drama’, a 7-minute reflection on his career, his family, and the pain that’s got him to this point. He offers poppier outings on ‘Voices’ and ‘Location’ with a hint of old-school garage, but no integrity is lost in the process – every loose thread is anchored down by self-reflexive weight: Dave knows who he is and where he is, and draws boundaries around his art. In the midst of his lamentation over women suffering in abusive relationships during ‘Lesley’, he remarks “I understand that I could never understand” – a commendable and necessary awareness that his persuasive lyricism is not dogma.
The 11 tracks are draining, and it’s a fair price we have to pay for this pointed exploration of heavy themes. The gloves are off, and we feel the full impact of every punch. But there’s a point where I was left pondering what Dave wants to be. Poetic storyteller? Political commentator? Mouthpiece of a community? And the more I listen, the more I understand my own critical shortcoming – in trying to understand its coherence, I ended up searching for homogeneity. A homogeneity that doesn’t, and shouldn’t exist.
there’s a point where I was left pondering what Dave wants to be
“Black is people naming your countries on what they trade most” – on the album’s stirring centrepiece, ‘Black’, Dave sketches out the stubborn social parasite of racial inequality, dismantling the homogenous lens through which the ‘white’ elite continues to view ‘black’ culture. The song is a multi-layered defence of his racial identity – its pain, its beauty, and its value – and the album as a whole extrapolates this unapologetic celebration of selfhood onto a broader frame. And although Dave brings the message to his front door on the pulsating, angry ‘Streatham’, he’s speaking to black, urban communities everywhere.
Dave looks to articulate what the media and the political elite so lazily overlook – a community is constructed and defined by its individuals; by both their successes and their sufferings. And as PSYCHODRAMA flicks from pulsating grime beats to subtle, skewed sampling, to ominously ambient minimalism – all while sitting atop Dave’s mellow, careful piano riffs – it feels like Dave is holding up a mirror to his own, diverse surroundings. What we’re left with is a pertinent, urgent defence of communities that are persistently misunderstood and generalised. A fast-paced, chaotic lifestyle doesn’t obscure political and emotional intelligence.
Dave looks to articulate what the media and the political elite so lazily overlook
“You’re my therapy” Dave confesses as he speaks directly to us on ‘Psycho’. For the youngster who grew up freestyling and mastering the piano, PSYCHODRAMA seems to offer a very real sense of therapeutic release – a proud tapestry of his artistic and emotional voyage. But the album is as inviting as it is intimate. He speaks for his community, but he simultaneously pleads his listeners to look inward themselves – he wants us to understand our own shortcomings, and reconcile our own pain. And I’m left accepting this invite, and thinking about that line on ‘Lesley’ – as a white, middle-class kid, there is a limit to what I can ‘understand’ about the importance of this vital album. Potent, challenging, and healing – it is a work beyond me, and a work beyond anything else in the British rap scene.