In 2003, Dizzee Rascal became the second rapper to win the Mercury Prize; second, sure, but he exhibited a little more staying power than the first (Ms Dynamite-tee-hee in 2002), helping to build grime from the ground up, before parleying his two-step flow into multi-million selling club rap.
In an alternate reality, the first Mercury Prize Winning rapper – also in 2002 – was instead Roots Manuva, for Run Come Save Me. Except we don't live in that reality and, save for the titanic 'Witness (1 Hope)' from that self same record, he never quite hit the big time. Follow through Rodney Smith's career since then, and whilst his albums usually manage a top 40 placement – save for 2011's 4everevolution - he's never had a 'Bonkers', or even a 'Sirens'. Roots Manuva will never be Dizzee Rascal. And that's good – because whilst he, like Dizzee, writes lyrics that are quintessentially British, whilst performing a variation on an American genre, with production inspired by foreign musical styles, Smith was pushed down a more interesting (if less lucrative) path. His third album, Awfully Deep is an uncomfortably numb chronicle of dark times in the young Manuva's life, dealing with his comparatively slight fame in a more mature, thoughtful way than, say, The Streets' The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living. The next, Slime and Reason, came with some Babylon-born production by Toddla T.
In fact, the first encounter with music the future Roots Manuva had was a bass-heavy Jamaican-style soundsystem on a skate park in his native Stockwell. The rumbling in his bones never went away, and since then he's sought out producers influenced as much by house music as by dancehall, Warp Records electronica, dub and dubstep. Banana Skank is the latest Roots Maunva experiment, his unhesitating slice-of-life lyrics this time spread across the sort of rumbling night bus post-club music Burial made popular ('Natural'), some SBTRKT-style post-dubstep on Wafa's remix of the title-track seguing into the full-bodied 'Banana Skank Part 2', which sounds like Deadmau5 with a sense of restrain; the bottom of the stack is 'Party Time', a quintessentially 'wonky' Manuva joint, chock full of pop culture references, white-collar complaints ("I'm a survivor / Nine-to-fiver"), and a that all-important bass – a song about poppin' bottles in the ice, for the tower block crowd.
Like all experimenters, he's not always completely successful – but Banana Skank is the exception to the norm, even if the bubbling keys and bass of 'Party Time' echo 'Witness' a little too closely, without ever being quite as iconic. Roots Manuva is one of the most thoughtful, smart, interesting, articulate and yet down-to-earth British rappers working today. And may he never work with David Guetta.