The Signature LP

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The ever-ambitious Sway DaSafo, who worked his way up from the underground to become one of the most visible rappers in the U.K., while remaining smugly unsigned, now has his sights set on the world. At least, that's the impression one gets from his sophomore full-length, The Signature LP, so named partly in reference to his recently inked international record deal with worldwide superstar (and fellow West African) Akon's Kon Live label (he's still technically independent in the U.K.), a move that may or may not succeed in spreading his fame beyond Britain's borders. "Let's take music all around the world/I can't do this by myself," he sings on the globetrotting, vaguely tropical-flavored "Special Place," but Sway's far too enterprising to be satisfied with utopian daydreams, so he's concocted a handful of flagrant crossover bids, with a parade of known and unknown guest artists, to put those words into action. These include the inevitable humdrum Akon collab "Silver and Gold" (moral of the story: strippers will steal your money); the smooth R&B/pop of "Saturday Night Hustle," an '80s throwback featuring British neo-soul crooner Lemar (best bit: Sway raps his clothing sizes, in case you want to give him any clothes); and the treacly "End of the Road" with Sting's daughter Coco Sumner. There's nothing horribly wrong with any of this, but none of it particularly plays to Sway's strengths either -- and he's always been likable and engaging enough on his own to make watered-down, overtly attention-grabbing tracks like these feel doubly unnecessary.

While his rapid-fire flow remains as impressive as ever, and his charisma is largely undimmed, Signature displays too little of the irreverent, happy-go-lucky spirit that made early singles like "Little Derek" so delightful. With a couple of exceptions -- including the bouncy highlight "Say It Twice" (which he does, clever-cleverly, with every line, at least for the first verse and hook) and the jokey "Jason Waste," an intermittently amusing character number relating the zany misadventures of a jobless loser -- this is a surprisingly serious-minded album, at least for the impish Sway. But then, he's always been more than just a jokester; he's as much a swaggering, boastful battle-rapper (a persona that crops up here on "Stereo" and the enjoyably epic, overblown opener, "Fit for a King") as he is a big softie -- indeed, it may be his sentimental side that makes the greatest strides here, most notably in the emotional middle section that includes "Pray 4 Kaya," a legitimately poignant homage to a departed friend, and the affecting anti-violence plea "Walk Away." Ultimately, despite its pop moves and world-conquering aspirations, The Signature LP may still be too idiosyncratic, too British, and too gloriously scattershot to succeed on the mass scale Sway seems to envision. It's hard to imagine, for instance, the U.K. single "F UR X," a jittery, grime-ish txt-message battle of the sexes, playing to an American audience. But that doesn't stop it from being a readily enjoyable listen -- its eclecticism practically ensures that you'll find something to like here -- and Sway's fans, once they get used to some of his more excessive departures, will realize that he truly hasn't changed all that much.