Gone are the days when even informed opinions on Irish rap could be summed up with a chuckle, a bit of banter about Limerick’s comedy scene and the name checking of a cringe worthy assortment of misguided bedroom ‘talents’. Largely bought into our public consciousness by RTE drama Love/Hate, the embers of a pre-existing scene have slowly sparked to life over the past few years. Lethal Dialect, together with the likes of Temper-Mental Miss Elayneous, Rejjie Snow and rap battle stars like Redzer have had a lot to do with that growing profile. In this third full-length, released two and a half years after LD50 Part II, Lethal Dialect steps up onto an entirely different playing field. 1988 no longer falls into the category of ‘promising’; it’s become memorably classy.
Dialect’s key assets remain the same. The album’s crammed with tightly intelligent and insightful lyrics; they take a little deciphering, but tell tales of urban life that seem more intent on being genuine than being cool. The beats are varied and often surprisingly soulful, incorporating jazzy asides and sharp drum solos alongside a few clever samples. The collaborations are smartly chosen: Damien Dempsey’s distinctive vocal adds soul to ‘Brave’, but Jess Kavanagh, featuring across several tracks, offers a gorgeous and natural match on ‘Headstrong’ and ‘26 Laws’ in particular.
In fact, at first listen Kavanagh may even be the best thing about 1988, though it’s hard not to get caught up in the nuanced lyrics Lethal Dialect himself has nailed so firmly to the mast. The whole is like a plea; reflective when it comes to past mistakes but oozing hope and heart for the future. Tales range from the hardened teen anthem of ‘School Dayz Are Over’ to heftier themes of lofty ambitions and facing responsibilities. For all the record’s quality, relative to Lethal Dialect’s previous two releases, what often stands out is just how intelligently put together the whole thing is.
Producer JackKnifeJ no doubt played a role in certain moments that are genius in their layering. ‘Beast Mode’, for example, unfolds over the top of Layo & Bushwacka’s ‘Love Story’, which sounds awful in print but has the same natural fusion in rhythm that 2 Many DJs have made a career out of. ’13 Til Infinity’ features an unlikely echo effect that sounds fresh from a mellow Fugees number, and the balance between Dialect’s vocal and its accompaniment doesn’t clutter as it has sporadically in the past. The general improvement in production and sound clarity from the previous two albums is astounding.
That’s not to say 1988 is flawless. If we were feeling picky, the spoken aside ‘The Shark Interlude’ – a ‘meeting’ with a money-hungry record exec – is exactly the kind of silliness that can detract from a rap record once you’ve listened to it more than half a dozen times. Dialect’s vocal, sharp as its distinct North Dublin edge is, also lacks the tonal and stylistic variety he might need to make a true blockbuster (made up for to some extent by those quality guests). But picking on minor flaws is splitting hairs. This is compelling, and one massive leap forward.