The Mercury Prize-winning artist brings more voices into his remarkable second album, delivering home truths and personal insights
“I feel like a footballer when I’m makin’ my art/ Through ball, how I’m managin’ the weight of the past,” raps Dave on his second album. The comparison is timely. Like the heroes of the England team, Britain’s most skilful rapper identifies as “a young black belligerent/ Child of an immigrant, lifestyle frivolous”. The classically trained pianist has more than enough vocal dexterity and electric energy to thrill the bones on a sonic level. But it’s the spine-tingling, emotional frankness and battle for decency that swells the heart and boots your guts into the back of the net.
The 23-year-old born David Omoregie apparently suffered from writer’s block during lockdown. He must also have felt the pressure to repeat the Mercury/Brit/Ivor Novello-scoring success of his 2019 debut, Psychodrama. But during that time he still managed to collaborate with film composer Hans Zimmer on the soundtrack to David Attenborough’s Planet Earth: A Celebration”. It was during filming that Zimmer gave Dave his new album title. The rapper had studied the composer’s work as a teenager, eager to learn how the 63-year-old German had created sonic worlds he could “get lost in”. During a FaceTime, Zimmer reminded the struggling rapper: “We’re all alone in this together.”
This means that more voices are given more space on WAAITT. His vocal team expands to include fellow Nigerian artists Boj and WizKid, Swedish soul singer Snoh Aalegra, and minimalist/miserablist electronic star James Blake. Blake adds sweet, yearning vocals to “Both Sides Of A Smile” (in part about Dave’s love for his 5-year-old daughter) and lends a tangy, off-kilter angst to production across the album – you can feel his cool, restraining influence on Dave’s stripped piano motifs. Elsewhere, the sound swells. On the gospel-powered “In the Fire”, Dave is joined by a trio of London MCs (Ghetts, Giggs, Fredo) and Manchester’s Meekz as they spit tales of surviving urban violence, hearing bullets sing “higher than Mariah”.
After so much success, hard work and strife, Dave feels he’s earnt a bit of bling. So, on the party banger “Clash” (feat Stormy) he brags about his trainers and Rolexes: “I’m so close to my pension, my left wrist is 61,” before passing the ball to his senior, Stormzy, who reminds him: “Rollies? Got 21, I been lit since 21.” But, like Marcus Rashford (who become the youngest person to top The Sunday Times Giving List, after he helped to raise £20m for FareShare), Dave isn’t comfortable as a member of the 1 per cent in a failing society. “It’s like flying first class on a crashin’ plane,” he observes in the intro.
Dave has already shared insights into his upbringing in Streatham, where the “main way to provide for your kin/ Is in a flick blade, little push-bike and a SIM”. He continues to divulge home truths now with a remarkable level of empathy and self-awareness, seeing the wider social divisions reflected at street level. His single mother’s struggle to raise him and his heartbreak over his older brother’s involvement in gang violence were addressed on Psychodrama. Now he gets even more intimate. On “Heart Attack”, he raps: “I was in intensive care when I was born, mummy fell down the stairs/ Whether I was gonna live or not was somethin’ uncertain/ I used the word ‘fell’, with the commas inverted.” Later we hear directly from his mother, wracked with pain, as she recalls arriving in England from Nigeria, not yet 20. We think of her again when Dave raps about people urinating on nightclub toilet seats, without thinking of the cleaner who will shiver at small-hours bus stops on their way to come and wipe up those clubbers’ messes. His anger and compassion are balanced on a knife-edge.
Now Dave wants to tell his mother: “I ain’t nothin’ like my father/ I’ma show her there’s a different definition to love.” He shouts out to Black women, promising to be there “on the frontline” for them. He admits he was tempted to become violent himself in defence of an ex girlfriend: “I never really thought ‘bout taking a life/ Til I found out my ex-girl’s dad is abusive/ I felt “How could I be a man and not do s***?”” But he realises, in time, that “fightin’ her battle’s only hurtin’ the girl.”
While Dave has already proven himself an astute chronicler of Britain’s racism, WAAITT finds him digging deeper into its murky history. On “Three Rivers”, he traces the journeys of immigrants from the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and the Middle East to our “steadier shores”. Now, he says, “asylum’s got them in a different war… They’re key workers, but they couldn’t even get in the door”. Even those immigrants who hit the big time, like Dave, are left struggling with anxiety and “survivor guilt”. Despite all his fame and money, he tells listeners that he still books AirB&Bs using a white man’s profile picture. WAAITT is a compelling, conscious-jolting account of a life of two halves.