Derek "Sway" DaSafo was one of the most promising British rappers to emerge in the mid-'00s, the period immediately following the initial flourishing and fading of interest in the U.K. grime scene. (His music bears some sonic similarities to grime, but is better described simply as hip-hop, with all the breadth of appeal that distinction entails.) This debut album, which followed two rounds of "This Is My Promo" mixtapes, displays him as a fully formed and formidable talent: self-conscious and introspective (that much should be evident from his album titles), but never tediously chin-stroking or esoteric; delightfully witty and droll but almost always with a well-considered underlying message; streetwise but hardly thuggish; linguistically nimble but not ostentatious; decidedly English in rhetoric, references, and voice, but distinctive enough, and with enough sheer unqualified charisma, to transcend genre and geographic boundaries. Indeed, Sway strikes such a well-positioned balance between so many poles and potential pitfalls, offering a little something to appeal to almost any potential listener, that you'd expect him to come off as overly calculated. On the contrary, though, his casual, almost tossed-off earnestness is quintessential to his charm.
The album gets off to a particularly spectacular start, alternating between hard-hitting, grime-style tracks -- the hypnotically menacing, synth-based title cut and the contemptuous, verbally pyrotechnic "Hype Boys" -- and brighter, more melodious material like the charmingly breezy (and peculiarly harpsichord-laden) single "Little Derek," and especially "Products," a jaunty, pop-reggae love letter to his native London that plays like the hip-hop version of Lily Allen's "LDN." This opening quartet is all basically autobiographical in content, but "Pretty Ugly Husband" veers into fantasy/role play territory with a supremely unsettling account of domestic abuse. It's easily the album's darkest and most violent moment, all the more startling for how it's sequenced, after a candid, endearingly self-deprecating bedroom skit that accompanies the blissful "Derek," and just before the wry "Flo Fashion," with its spot-on skewering of trend-chasing credit card debtors. "Download" duplicates "Fashion"'s gag of feigning cluelessness -- this time about illegal file-sharing -- to great comic effect, but also raises cogent questions about the contemporary musical economy. "Up Your Speed" is Sway's rousing stab at an all-out Brit-rap anthem, complete with geographic shout-outs ("Wolverhampton: up your speed/Newcastle, Sheffield: up your speed"), an infectiously sinuous guitar line and a stuttering groove not dissimilar from the beats popular in contemporaneous southern U.S. rap. The later portion of the album, though not a major let-down, doesn't hold up quite as well -- it gets mired in saccharine R&B territory to some extent, and is generally less inventive musically and conceptually -- but Sway's personality and prowess on the mic are never in doubt, and he continues to litter the tracks with bon mots both complex ("I feared bending over backwards to get into heaven/only to end up in limbo") and cutesy ("I wish a was a million-trillionaire -- I'd put so many rings upon your finger they'd say your hand was polyphonic.") Still, as saccharine R&B/rap love jams go, "Month in the Summer" (the source of that last one-liner) is pretty irresistible, and so, ultimately, is the album as a whole. Even the skits have a surprising amount of replay value, particularly the sequence that follows Sway's goofball alter-ego, MC Charlie Boy, as he departs from Ghana (DaSafo is Ghanaian by heritage and upbringing), swims to England, and promotes the release of his debut album I Swam All the Way from Ghana with previews of such tracks as "There's a Mosquito in My Fufu" and "I Married Her for a Visa." As Sway laments on "Little Derek," "when you do U.K. rap you're number two/'cause the U.S.A. ain't giving us space to break through" -- but if the U.S. can't find at least a little space to welcome this U.K. rapper (who introduces himself helpfully on "Sick World": "I'm coming to you from the same place as the Spice Girls"), it will mean a regrettable loss for American audiences, and for hip-hop as a whole.