That we're only getting Dave's debut album in 2019 tells us a lot about the artist himself. With a Drake co-sign, a number one-charting hit, and a string of viral singles dating back to 2016, the London-born rapper had every opportunity to take the easy route, whipping up a half-baked debut with his hit singles and guaranteeing himself the big-label sophomore. Yet Dave wanted it to get it right the first time. Distilling his life experiences into a concept album, his debut album PSYCHODRAMA comes fully formed, a nuanced project imitating the form of therapy his brother experienced in prison. With snippets from Dave's therapist dividing the album into three self-described "acts" -- Environment, Relationships, and Social Compass -- the project replicates the titular practice, with Dave reenacting life experiences and mind states in order to self-reflect. The result is a thoroughly compelling self-examination; taking us track by track through attitudes, occurrences, and locations, Dave paints an immensely detailed self-portrait, wrapped in strands of both past and present.
Much like the late-teen Nas on Illmatic, Dave's pen works well beyond his years. PSYCHODRAMA holds visions of broken relationships, poverty, and deep-set depression, yet they're never posed as vast and dramatic; projecting the experiences of his own life, Dave reflects the conditions of his South London home with frankness and personal grievance. Whether it be the rallying cry for racial identity on "Black," generational voicing of "Environment," or 11-minute domestic abuse narrative of "Lesley," Dave's words consistently blur the line between personal and universal, addressing significant issues aptly while giving only greater insight into the artist himself. Yet, rather than just blunt reportage, Dave's tracks are laced with wordplay. Lines like "Hiding crow in a Rubicon drink/Which is funny 'cause that's how we put food in the fridge" and "Now he's cuttin' through bricks like the 118" manifest triple entendres with ease, while "I've got a baby, a crossbow like Cupid" and "make her spend a day in a veil like a widow" employ sly references to his home city. As well as adding authorial color, this wordplay gives the album's blunter moments a greater poignancy: "I used to cry about my dad until my f*cking eyes burnt" cuts sharply through the riffing of "Psycho," while "Environment" deconstructs public perception with the effective "You see this industry where everybody came up/I see a bag of weird rappers and some fake love." That's not to mention late gems "Lesley" and "Drama," skeletal narrative outpourings that tear away the wittiness to deliver heart-wrenching stories of domestic abuse, distraught families, and isolation.
With the significance of the narratives being woven, it's essential that the album's production doesn't attempt to take the spotlight for itself. Luckily, PSYCHODRAMA's production is thoroughly complementary, adding texture and resonance to Dave's words while ensuring his voice remains center stage. The tools of this are organic and instrumental: "Purple Heart" and "Lesley" reflect isolation and grief through strings, while vocal samples put a haunting strand through "Screwface Capital" and "Black." The primary force at work here, though, is Dave's piano. Putting tool to tone, he morphs the piano to suit his needs, reflecting everything from joy to aggression through choice note placement and complementary electronics. The result is an album whose sonics reinforce its moods, allowing Dave to express a wealth of emotions in a measured, complex approach. While it's too early to give the album its legacy, PSYCHODRAMA has all the makings of a generational classic. Packing dense lyricism, poignant introspection, and resonant production into a neatly compiled concept, Dave's debut album is the product of a MC beyond his years, standing firmly among the Godfathers and Made in the Manors as one of the strongest British rap albums of the decade.