As an ex-teacher, Kieran Dickins will likely know that feeling of frustration as a gifted pupil struggles to display their full potential.
Roles reversed, Dickins in his guise as DELS tips over into the sweet moment where the student in question begins to show controlled flair. Black Salad is not the chaotic and raw outpouring of angst that his debut Gob was, has some moments that are easy to forget, and sometimes lacks confidence. That said, a modicum of self-doubt is one of the character traits that make Kieren Dickins’ hip hop/grime project as fresh and disarming as it, at its best, emphatically is.
The soi-disant DELS on Gob flows wryly, righteously enraged by the injustices of the world as he encounters it – the deathly dull attrition of dead-end jobs, urban squalor, political hopelessness and the sheer slogging difficulty of finding beauty and love and truth in a landscape where, if they are not snaffled and horded by the upper-income echelons of a clientist state, are too easily drowned out by the venal prickings of his own flesh.
The numbing ether of plant ethanol imbibed in its various forms is a recurrent image, with the self-aware implication that what the bottle gives in terms of succour, it takes away in units of unfulfilled ambition.
If the fire of anger and injustice still burns as strongly in DELS as it did in Gob, it will be on tracks that are not included on the Black Salad EP. It is customary for urban music artists to lose some of their anger by album number two, which usually deals with the sharp shock paradigm shift of seeing not much besides hotel rooms and tourbus interiors for the writing period of that ever-tricky suite of songs.
Hilarious backstage japes, bitches, hos etc.
To his credit, that was never part of the the DELS approach. Blustering arrogance – the ‘mama-had-to-work-three-jobs-just-to-put-shoes-on-our-feet’ end of the continuum doesn’t figure in his oeuvre. The ‘puttin’ a bitch on the corner from the time I wuz fourteen – chill wit’ my niggas – emceed my way up from the gutters, etc.’ narrative that still, incomprehensibly, provides mid-west cornfed WASPs with their vicarious ghetto jollies, is mercifully absent.
So too is the staple fodder of high-end mainstream hip-hop, where fast-talking yes-men drip the syrup of sychophancy into the ears of self-identified musical maestros flapping vainly in front of taciturn 64-piece orchestras whilst vomiting out a monotonous ‘flow’ mostly devoted to unpleasant opinions about women and lists of consumer durables delivered with the same turgid attention to detail as evidence given in a tax fraud tribunal.
From that, DELS stands apart.
Nor is he a white-hot crusader in the mold of BangOn or Immortal Technique. For all their grit and fervour, their arrogance is applied differently, but it is still rooted in a surfeit of self-belief that is absent in Black Salad or Gob.
But whilst the self-deprecation/everyman slouch that typified Gob was endearing, there are limits to the appeal of that persona.
‘Bird Milk’ suffers a little from self-consciousness. It is overtly ‘psychological’ in its lyrics: ‘I suggest you skip the track if your stomach’s kinda delicate’ suggests deeply disturbing insight to follow, but doesn’t really deliver anything much more profound than clown-ridden dreamscapes and standard young man’s existential worries: ‘I’m sinking in the dirt, trying to find my worth within the world’.
The track largely consists of the symptoms of emotional/mental randomness that DELS appears to consider worthy of note.
He’s zany, you see, a touch more artistically minded than the rest of us, dontcha know. You don’t have to be mad to be DELS, but it helps. Only that the symptoms described are largely mundane, such as the rest of us experience regularly and ignore.
That said, the ‘keyboard’ riff that drives the track and a female vocal from BILA brings a hard-edged counterpoint to the customary vocal torpor DELS uses on tracks where he isn’t politically wound up.
Two of the tracks: ‘Black Salad’ and ‘Sell By Date’ exist more to show off some production style quirks than as serious efforts in themselves. Short interludes, they seem disposable exhibitions of the current state of sequencing software, something to dust the EP with an identifiable era-signature so that future archivists can slot it under ‘post-dubstep’. Sidechains, compressed basslines, check.
Black Salad lacks the heavily-daubed production style that Kwes brought to Gob, which is no bad thing. Somewhat swamped by an 80s synth-pop aesthetic, there were times on that debut album where the vocals felt secondary. On Black Salad, productions by Kwes, but also from Raisa Khan, Eli-T and Coby Sey allow Dickins something more of a personal musical style – a woozy vocal, working off skittering beats and compressed/processed basslines that push the focus attention firmly onto the vocals out front.
What it builds up to is a closing track which suddenly unearths a missing link in vocal style and content that seems so obvious as to have been invisible. On ‘You Live in My Head’, the listener is hit with a laid-back delivery; a salting of that off-kilter zaniness that ‘Bird Milk’ established earlier; and a lyrical content based upon an introspective, psychologically intense persona.
A lightbulb pings into flourescence and although Example is often cited, for those with longer memories, Maxinquaye-era Tricky suddenly springs to mind.
The trip-hop heavy lovesong displays a solid confidence that illustrates exactly where DELS is capable of bringing his sound if he can continue developing the psychological element that peeks through the lyrics on the EP, but especially here.
Some heavy-handedness with strings programming is lacking, and the finale is more subtle swell than outright crescendo, but the sparse opening half of the song is delightful.
A locomotive snare beat, woodwind VSTs only lightly processed and a sprinkling of notes from the piano end of the pianoforte allow the listener the chance to lean into lyrics that remind of that intense and publicly sensual artistic relationship between Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird all those years ago: ‘lick the tears off my cheeks before they dry out, that’s what you whispered to me….’
On BigDada Records November 26th BigDada