Roots Manuva named his first album, 1999's promising Brand New Second Hand, after a song on Peter Tosh's landmark effort Legalize It. While Manuva isn't the first artist to use roots reggae as a hip-hop touchstone, his point of reference is a little left of center, or more accurately a little right of the Atlantic. Hailing from Brixton, the once-heavily West Indian sector of South London, Manuva was raised on equal parts Eric B. & Rakim and Shabba Ranks. The fun in listening to him lies in the way he warbles between American-style rapping (more or less on-beat and intelligible) and Jamaican dance-hall toasting (oddly metered and totally incomprehensible), in a voice that dramatically ebbs and flows.
Unfortunately, Manuva still hasn't found a compelling way to synch his million-dollar patois to a beat, even if many of the rhythms on his sophomore effort, Run Come Save Me,are highly inventive. In fact, much of the new album proves that good instrumentals and good rapping don't necessarily make a good song. The tracks lack a certain three-dimensionality that emerges only when words are meant to be with the music, and vice versa. Take, for instance, "Join the Dots," his duet with Chali 2na from Jurassic 5: The backing instrumental bounces along with strutting drums and punchy blaxploitation horns, but Manuva doesn't keep up, and 2na sticks to the tired, obvious rhyme structures, leaving the song feeling rote.
With most hip-hop acts content to rework the same old territories, it would be misguided to overlook an MC as original as Roots Manuva. But it'd also be wrong to consider him one of the most inspired voices in the genre -- as some critics have -- before he gets the kinks worked out. Given the amount of raw talent displayed on Run Come Save Me and the slightly better Brand New Second Hand, it's quite possible that his future work will overshadow his uneven start.
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