Dave’s sophomore album refines his existing templates, solidifying the pull the South London rapper has on the entire nation.
There are few debuts in UK rap quite like the blockbuster Psychodrama. A number one, Platinum-selling, Mercury Prize-winning album that left little room to debate Dave’s spot as the prince of the scene. In terms of debuts alone, it was a league that put him in the ranks of Dizzee Rascal and Kano. These legends know themselves just how tough it was living up their critically-acclaimed Boy in da Corner‘s and Home Sweet Home‘s. In the era of social media and endless critiques from anyone with internet access, can Dave afford to drop the ball on his chance to become an all-time great?
Two years since the debut, We’re All Alone in This Together arrives at the aftermath of a global pandemic, its juxtaposed title derived from a conversation with composer Hans Zimmer. The artwork reimagines a painting by French artist Claude Monet, featuring two figures in a boat in the middle at sea. Before even engaging with the music, inspiration seems to be gathered from various directions.
We’re All Alone in This Together does not reinvent the wheel, but it is unapologetically Dave, understanding his strengths to deliver another supreme record that improves in isolated departments.
At its hour-long, twelve track length, Dave’s second album maintains ambition. Once again, there are stories to tell, feelings to convey, and upgraded observations that have inspired new subject matters. A looser experience to the lauded Psychodrama, Dave rows the boat on the cover art to numerous pitstops, quite literally following the stream of consciousness to bottle bars of heritage, broken relationships and who defined his upbringing.
What’s clear from the jump is the improvement in Dave’s lyricism and performances. Across the record, Dave pervades double entendres that’s accompanied by plenty colour in his voice. In fact, here lie Dave’s strongest lyrics to date, delivering them with newfound confidence. Opening track “We’re All Alone” delivers excitable flows, an upgrade to the bare-boned flows of Psychodrama. From minute one, Dave sounds matured, a detail easy to miss but one that shows Dave is conscious of the way he is writing and laying his bars on the microphone.
Psychodrama followed a narrative mainly inspired by the incarceration of his elder brother. WAAITT maintains the family focus but pivots to Dave’s mother, crediting her for weathering the storms and forming the man he is today, adamant on paying her back (“I told mummy “I ain’t nothin’ like my father / I’ma show her there’s a different definition to love”). The alluded mission is creating a biopic on his mother’s life, as hinted in the voicemail at the end of “We’re All Alone” and the closing lyrics of the album. If this is the case, WAAITT acts a precursor soundtrack, one that connects both Dave and his mother’s life for two main threads – the labour and the fruits of the labour.
The fact WAAITT is less conceptual makes room for more casual tracks than its predecessor. “Verdansk” is a musically muted, intense showcase of hot punchlines, addictively quotable from start to finish (“Airport, we’re going for bants / I hopped out the plane, I ain’t going Verdansk”). It boasts supreme replay value from a rapper who’s chink in his armour is his alleged lack of recreational tunes. Lead single “Clash” with Stormzy fits awkwardly into the album, but is sure to light up shows once Dave tours the album. The afrobeat pair of “System” and “Lazarus” takes warming up to, though the album’s summer drop makes their purpose more than obvious. Lighthearted and catchy, envision playing these with the sun blazing and only a grouch could resist them.
Structurally, Dave takes conscious decisions to shy away from the doom and gloom. Among its opening five-track run is the bombshell “In the Fire”, a posse cut that rivals the likes of Tinchy Stryder’s “Game Over”. Featuring uncredited verses by Fredo, Meekz, Ghetts and Giggs, “In the Fire” brings urgent lyricism centred around the track’s soulful 80s sample. It effortlessly bridges the old school (Ghetts, Giggs) with the new school (Dave, Fredo, Meekz), with no guest offering a weak verse. The production is new territory for Dave, making it one of the most refreshing moments of the album.
Once the fun is ticked off, Dave gets to business. “Three Rivers” is the album’s first instance of social commentary, touching on the Balkan Wars, conflicts in the Middle East, and Windrush scandal that sees the British government wrongly deporting migrant workers. Dave manages to address such topics without preaching or conducting a history lesson, consistently maintaining his emotion and sincerity. It is also a track that aptly sets up the embrace of his Nigerian heritage, adding a purpose to the album sequencing without the need for a holistic concept (“System”, “Lazarus”).
WAAITT contains Dave’s most personal work to date, and may just contain the most personal content ever by a UK rapper. At its highest point is the ten-minute “Heart Attack”, a striking slew of bars opening up on the climate of knife crime, domestic abuse and his mother’s efforts to provide. Dave is relentless with his writing, embodying the stream of consciousness to put every therapeutic thought on wax before ending with an emotional pry of his mother’s pain. This is the moment that hits the listener for what Dave has been working towards. If there is any doubt in a listener’s mind for the album’s payoff, the answer lies at the feet of Dave’s mother.
The production of Psychodrama was minimal, which worked to the advantage of its personal themes. WAAITT uses more colourful production, though does remain in Dave’s comfort zone. Seven of the twelve songs feature piano, an identical amount to Psychodrama. However, it is tough to pinpoint any more suitable production for songs like “Three Rivers” and “Heart Attack” that need an equally emotional instrument to compliment its sombre lyrics. Other moments could certainly benefit from riskier elements considering WAAITT is not intended to be tight-knit like Psychodrama.
“Both Sides of a Smile” is the closest effort to diverge from the formula. With the help of James Blake, Dave constructs a beautiful eight-minute piece centred around a broken relationship – even if the verses do read like a poetry slam. Blake’s sweet vocals are the main attraction, until the second half that sees Dave hit home the improvement in his songwriting (“Feels like my luck’s been running out”). Closing track “Survivor’s Guilt” also focuses on romantic relationships, a heavy contributor to the personal confessions of the album. Muted production once again allows Dave the room to open dialogue, never distracting the listener from the honesty of his lyrics. Tracks like these flex Dave’s strengths to a tee, his pen bleeding a sense of relief that resonates with the listener.
When the album does underwhelm, it is not to disastrous effects. “Law of Attraction” with Snoh Aalegra carries average production from Jae5 and the most forgettable verses on the album. Yet its tropical flavours make it another lighthearted cut that should not be overanalysed. “Twenty to One” is reminiscent of Psychodrama‘s “Voices”, let down by Dave’s sung vocals and a lack of purpose to the track’s title and hook. Elsewhere, growers exist in “Clash”, “System” and “Lazarus”, but do exist in a lower tier to the rest of the album that sees Dave performing at optimal level.
Dave has free license to not pull off another show-stopping concept album. But it comes with a price, which is the album not feeling tight-knit like its predecessor. At its heaviest, WAAITT‘s centrepieces demand a listen during the course of the album, rather than being extracted and standing as individual tracks. Though on the other side, WAAITT provides a consistent listen with memorable lyricism and appropriate features, wisely using its lighter songs to create a relieving balance. By the end of the album, we receive exactly what we want from Dave. It simply requires that extra stretch of innovation to be taken to groundbreaking heights.
Dave remains in his comfort zone musically, but We’re All Alone in This Together is the most transparent he’s ever been. Forever gripping in his trials and tribulations, it’s safe to say the Rolexes are rightfully earned.
8 / 10
Best tracks: “Heart Attack”, “In the Fire”, “Both Sides of a Smile”, “Survivor’s Guilt”, “Verdansk”