Credibility and integrity of character have always been paramount to grime. There are a few handy case studies that get wheeled out as examples of what not to do. Tinchy Stryder rubbing shoulders with Edwina Currie on I'm A Celebrity, for example. Or Wiley's string of chart-climbing singles in the mid-00s. Perhaps the most frequently cited of all, though, is the post-2008 (and post Mercury Prize winning) career of Dizzee Rascal – an exemplary illustration of how an artist can go from being critically acclaimed to letting a 45-year-old male pop star feature on his relatively unpopular single in the space of a few questionable moves.
You can choose your own watershed moment: "Dance Wiv Me", "Bonkers", touring with The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, teaming up with James Corden for an unofficial World Cup single that interpolated Tears For Fears with Backstreet Boys. But there's also no point picking apart that period in Dizzee's career any more than it already has been. Rather, it's important to draw in on the part of this story that's been overlooked – Dizzee's third studio album (and his last on XL Recordings), Maths + English, which celebrates its tenth anniversary later summer.
This album is slept on – and it's not hard to understand why. Dizzee's move into more explicitly commercial territory came around fast, overshadowing the way Maths + English pretty much nails the kind of balancing act we expect of today's grime superstars. It beamed Stateside ambitions, pop sensibilities, subtle grime nuances and experimentation through the same alienated lens of Boy In Da Corner – ultimately placing it at the zenith of what a pop-and-grime crossover album should be. It's a diverse, bright record with big singles that never feel contrived or strained. The best way to understand this is to look at the various things Dizzee managed to pull off on Maths + English. Starting with...
"Sirens." The album's lead single. With live drums and a wheezing electric guitar that sounded like it had been transported from Scuzz, the track could have easily echoed an all-too-familiar and enduringly cringe-inducing sound – the rapper awkwardly placed with a live band. Often these "mash-ups" of rappers and live bands feel like charity singles, special one-off performances for sporting events, or the wet dream of a coked-up and out-of-touch A&R team. But what Dizzee achieved on "Sirens" is similar to the mood created by Skepta on "Man". The live instruments create a sense of raw, untamed tension. Rather than sounding forced, Dizzee's sculpted flow darts between the scratches of the guitar and paints a picture like the one in the video – sprinting through London under the fluorescent, clinical glow of streetlights.
ANext up is "Where Da G's" – a track which you could say foreshadowed Skepta's affinity with distinctively US rhyme patterns and beats, a skill integral to his crossover appeal. In 2007, the year Pimp C died, Dizzee and UGK exchanged contributions for one another's projects. On "Where Da G's" a winding, Houston bassline sets a stage for Dizzee, Pimp C and Bun B to assess the competition. The song – and its accompanying video, where Dizzee touches down in Houston to join with UGK's hustle (and pulls a stack of cash out of a Paddington Bear doll) – is totally effortless. Their respective flows combine perfectly, as though their relationship was preordained by the stars. Dizzee returned the favour by jumping on "Two Type of Bitches" from UGK's penultimate long-player Underground Kingz. All things considered it's a questionable tune, but the trans-Atlantic chemistry between the pair is electric and the first collaboration of its kind.
Like the very best groundbreaking pop albums, underground sounds are brought to the fore on Maths + English without being butchered. There's the polished 2-step charm of "Flex", the sparky bounce of "Pussyole (Old Skool)", and the masterstroke of "Da Feelin'" – a sun-kissed Shy FX-produced d'n'b single that somehow manages to miraculously sidestep tackiness. The story goes that Joss Stone was meant to be on this track but her vocals got canned because Dizzee thought they were too poppy. Authenticity comes first and the result is an exhilarating ode to that moment in the year when the heat of the city's morning sun speaks to the opportunity of the coming months, making otherwise mundane moments feel breathtaking. Then there's "Temptation" with a then wide-eyed Alex Turner, a track imbued with a confidence and flair that makes other grime and indie collaborations feel like anaemic, wounded animals. Above all, it feels like all parties involved want to be there.
Of all the stunts somehow pulled off on Maths + English, though, Lily Allen's hook on "Wanna Be" might be the biggest feat. As Alex Macpherson put it in his 2007 review of the album for The Guardian, "The idea of Lily Allen throwing her two pence into the arena, as she does on 'Wanna Be', is, on paper, a recipe for disaster – the taunt 'your mum buys your bling' is a bit rich coming from the former Bedales pupil – but setting her mockney tones over a Bugsy Malone sample and following them with Dizzee sagely advising rivals to 'go home, have a cup of tea, watch Corrie' is so ridiculous it's hugely enjoyable." Perhaps Allen should have been called out but somehow the hypocrisy was passable.
Sure, hindsight is a wonderful thing. Maybe some of the moments Dizzee seemed to get away with on Maths + English only seem passable in light of the more overtly sell-out moments that followed. But there's also a spirit on the album that's rarely been captured on any grime record since. This was Dizzee's last album on an independent label and, more than anything, each song exudes a sense of post-genre freedom, the likes of which is best reflected in Stormzy's Gang Signs & Prayer – an album that's raised the bar for balancing credibility with commercial viability. Could it be time for a reappraisal of Maths + English and the standard it set?
On top of the ambient, glassy beat for the album's brilliant opener "World Outside", Dizzee says, "There's world outside of the manor and I want you to see it" – a hook that echoes and reverberates into space. He moved on after this album, to places that seemed distinctly alien from the corner he started out in. But this brief time spent in the in-between shouldn't be overlooked. This record is an authentic expression of exploring a world outside without trying to erase the place you came from.
You can find Duncan on Twitter.