Over the years, we’ve become used to grime and dubstep as vehicles for a portrayal of the UK’s urban hinterland: the tough inner-city estates, the lonely bus rides through decaying suburbia, the overarching threats of gangs, police and drugs, the heady rush of post-dancefloor euphoria giving way to end-of-the-night melancholia. These have come to define our city nights like a tapestry culled from the minds of millions of young revellers and city dwellers, a collective database as indefinable and romanticised as it is visceral and universal. In grime in particular, MCs spit, yelp and bellow sketches of their day-to-day experiences, allowing a tiny insight of their lives before the songs fade and the shaking bass ushers us towards the dancefloor.
It’s rare that an artist will open up to the extent that it feels like you’ve been given access to his or her deepest thoughts and feelings. The aforementioned universality detracts from the personal beyond the fleetest of glimpses, but Josh Idehen seems to take little interest in convention or stylistic mores, and his is a vision more coherent and formally narrative than any other MC I’ve come across, at least in these days when the solo underground grime artist à la early Dizzee or Wiley has taken a backseat to (often striking) collaborative efforts such as The Bug’s Angels & Devils and ubiquitous chart-topping bubblegum-hop. Idehen comes across on Islands as a romantic, a drifter and a story-teller, a narrator transmitting those same dirty roads, reverberating clubs and cramped council flats to us via his own experiences, emotions and musings.
In production duo LV, Idehen has chanced upon the ideal collaborators. Routes, their debut album together, was pretty much a portrait of London in music, very much in the vein of Keysound label owners Dusk and Blackdown’s Margins Music, with Idehen’s vocals pared down to soundbites dropped around LV’s post-dubstep malaise. On Islands, the MC is given the centre stage, dominating tracks that become actual songs, with a considered variation in tempos and styles. On the one hand, there is a descriptive narrative: Idehen continues some of the ideas of Routes–and trends in grime and dubstep in general- on tracks like ‘Double Decker Backseat’ and the hopelessly irresistible single ‘Imminent’, constructing vivid, expressionist images of London’s darker underbelly. The former is essentially wordless, Idehen’s lyrics laden with effects until it almost becomes a slur (and who living London hasn’t boarded a late-night bus barely able to articulate the simplest of thoughts). It’s a prime example of how even when Idehen takes a back seat of sorts (no pun intended), the empathy between him and LV allows his overall message to shine brightly. ‘Imminent’, meanwhile, is a disturbing half-dialogue based on an overheard conversation brimming with murderous intent: “Dat boi, dat boi, dat idiot/Thinks he’s grime, thinks he’s brilliant/He don’t know his time is limited/Can’t see his end is imminent/Imminent/Imminent/Imminent/Imminent”. The track is all the more chilling for its cantering along squelchy bass and infectious snares, overflowing with hooks even as the protagonists prepare themselves for fictional violence.
The trio don’t limit themselves to mirroring London’s neon-lit darkness, with Idehen using such stories to paint the world in which he, a Nigerian Briton raised in Benin City, deals with life, love and loss. I’d go so far as to state he lays his soul out like an open book on Islands, such as on the otherwise inconsequential 56-second ‘Obsessed’ in which Idehen plays the forlorn abandoned lover. ‘Island’, another third-person tale but one that feels more personal than ‘Imminent’ and ‘Shake’, is a dark lament on unrequited love and jealousy set to a gentle ambient backing that wouldn’t be out of place on King Midas Sound’s Waiting For You.
The two angles on Islands coalesce most impressively on ‘Run Down’, a wonderfully morose shuffle documenting Idehen’s anticipation for the oncoming night that starts out with shifting electronic drones and faint rhythmic shifts before lurching into a finger-clicking deconstructed 4/4 groove that is just the right side of catchy to get you itching for the dancefloor. LV are remarkably adroit tunesmiths, able to navigate the fine lines between minimalism and melodicism without ever descending into dry formalism or familiar clichés. Josh Idehen has a voice that is just as expressive and powerful, whether he’s belting out the fast-paced rap of ‘Imminent’ or the more sensual, evocative neo-soul of ‘Islands’. I doubt there will ever be another great leap forwards in UK urban music, but these guys certainly push the envelope further than most.