Review: Dave, ‘Psychodrama’

Innovative and candid, the South London rapper crafts the most breathtaking debut of his generation.

For the average aspiring UK rapper, the rise of Santan Dave is exactly as you’d expect. A Blackbox freestyle, SB.TV Warm Up Session and Street Starz freestyle put the then-17 year old on the map. Since then, the South London rapper has refused to be your ‘average’ rapper, releasing two critically-acclaimed EPs and most recently earning a number 1 single. Dave ensured a Drake co-sign didn’t define his career, assembling a tightly-knit team consisting of producers 169 and Fraser T. Smith to nurture a vision focused on lyrical content. Two years in the making, the MC’s debut album has been the best-kept secret of the British scene to the point where no title, singles or features were confirmed. Its sudden arrival rattles nerves, yet the compact rollout screams confidence; a declaration of strategic timing.

Woven expertly in its 51 minutes, Psychodrama earns instant access to the echelon of UK rap albums. Psychodrama is an unprecedented remedy for both Dave and UK rap. Rarely has a conceptual approach been applied by a British rapper, let alone executed in the manner Psychodrama achieves. Dave takes a mere 11 tracks to magnify his life story with conviction and focus, fulfilling the potential exhibited on Six Paths and Game Over.

Far from a collection of songs, Psychodrama is a musical therapy session. The album conceptualises tracks as responses to a psychotherapist, encouraging Dave to open up about his traumas. The concept is both a metaphor for music being Dave’s therapy and a reflection of the therapy taken by the rapper’s incarcerated brother, the latter being a recurring theme throughout the album up to its final track. On his way to recovery, Dave reflects on his surroundings (“Streatham”, “Environment”), relationships (“Purple Heart”, “Location”) and racial identity (“Black”). There is precision to the concept, an approach unattempted by a UK rap album in recent memory.

Dave’s concept is both consistent and chronological. The chilling “Psycho” introduces Dave’s trauma with the task of discovering how to “stop all the pain”. It is a haunting opener, immediately setting the tone for the tracks that follow. Social observations are outlined on “Screwface Capital” and “Environment”, the latter exploring the differences in perspective to Dave’s rap-star lifestyle. Each skit by the therapist sets up the following track; for example, declaring Dave is “in control of his emotions” before “Voices” breaks down Dave’s relationships with pain, suffering, envy and optimism (“I know heartbreak well, man I got her on speed dial / Me and suffering got the same dad / Me and pain go way back”). Maintaining these connections between skits and songs means there can be no skips, which Psychodrama clinches (even with the album’s most rudimentary track, “Purple Heart”).

Psychodrama is short of uptempo, straightforward songs, but there are a few. “Streatham” is the standout track with replay value, an ode to Dave’s hometown engulfed in top-tier wordplay. The J Hus collaboration “Disaster” smoothly sees the duo playfully trading bars with the cockiest of attitudes (“Everyting camouflaging / Looking like a bulletproof vest, nah that’s just the body warmer”). “Location” featuring Burna Boy treads the same playful territory before “Voices” increases the tempo one final time. The hooks may not be as catchy as “No Words” but boast replay value in an album demanding a focused listen.

Dave also demonstrates his ability for compelling storytelling. The 11-minute “Lesley” is the album’s centrepiece, putting an emphasis on the ‘drama’ in ‘Psychodrama’. In expert fashion, Dave articulates befriending a girl on the train enduring a toxic relationship. The storytelling and sombre production is moving, combining for an intense track that behaves as a motion picture rather than a song. Wherever the drama goes the instruments follow, syncing with Dave’s verbal pieces to the puzzle. The simple hook of “I don’t know myself” is beautifully sung, and a testament to the relationship resulting in Lesley’s loss of character. “Lesley” is more than a story; it is based on the real-life experiences of Dave’s relatives (as revealed on “Drama”), and a message to women in abusive relationships (“I’m begging you to get support if you’re lost or trapped”). For a 20-year-old, such a sensitive topic is explored with extreme maturity.

Even more heartbreaking is the final track, “Drama”, featuring Dave’s older brother calling from prison. Dave addresses his brother in the verse to create a conversation without a therapist, who can only do so much for Dave and his problems. Dave lets loose his thoughts to his brother, a therapy within itself (“I just lost the only fucking person that I idolised / For my entire life I copied you down to the finest line”). The track echoes the haunting production of “Psycho”, the intro beginning Dave’s story through vague detail before finally getting to the core of his problems – his brother’s incarceration. Paired together, the tracks complete the story of Psychodrama, beginning and ending with goosebumps.

Verse to verse, Dave’s bars are meticulous, and the driving force for what makes Psychodrama tick. This focus may hold the album back for some listeners, but genuine fans of rap music will absorb Psychodrama in a heartbeat. The wordplay is flawless, whether that is triple entendres on “Streatham” (“My young G done draws and eights / Now he’s cuttin’ through bricks like the 118“) or witty callbacks to older tracks on “Psycho” (“My ex-girl want to shoot a cover for Vogue / Which is pretty ironic ’cause she’s top of the range”). Specifically, “Streatham” is a verbal exercise of superb punchlines with too many quotables to mention. From lyrics alone, Psychodrama sets a new bar for fellow MCs to reach.

Outside of the album, Dave is self-aware of the body of work and its purpose. Selecting only 11 songs speaks for itself; the focus is to create a work of art, not an album tailored to streaming and Spotify playlists. It’s no surprise that his biggest single to date, “Funky Friday”, is nowhere to be seen on the tracklist, a song that belongs in the daytime compared to the nocturnal aura of Psychodrama. More suitable singles such as “Hangman” do not make an appearance either, a song befitting of the album’s stream of consciousness.

In a scene thriving off commercial singles, Psychodrama oozes the fundamentals of rap. The wordplay, storytelling and lowkey production are the links for the stainless execution of a gripping concept. Psychodrama bravely demands attention, reserving an honorary spot as one of the best British rap albums of the decade.

Rating: 9 / 10

Best tracks: “Psycho”, “Streatham”, “Screwface Capital”, “Disaster”, “Environment”, “Drama”, “Lesley”, “Black”, “Voices”