It’s hard to conceive of a better reception for an album than that which greeted Psychodrama, Streatham rapper Dave's 2019 debut. It won both the muso-friendly Mercury prize and the populist-minded Brit award for album of the year (a feat previously managed by only Arctic Monkeys’ debut); debuted at No 1 and earned a tranche of five-star reviews.
And its impact extended well beyond the music industry. Delivered through the framework of a therapy session, Psychodrama offered nuanced, affecting social commentary and a rich seam of political protest: during a performance of the standout track, Black, at last year’s Brits, the musician added new lyrics – including the claim that “our prime minister is a real racist”. To many Dave’s remarks made perfect sense: this was a young Black man schooling politicians and the public on racism, injustice and poverty with intelligence, logic and empathy – the polar opposite of a Tory soundbite.
An early taste of Psychodrama’s follow-up, sin emabargo, showed that Dave wouldn’t be hemmed in by expectations of worthiness: We’re All Alone in This Together’s (WAAITT) first single, the Stormzy collaboration Clash, barely mentioned politics. A cold, imperious ode to conspicuous consumption, its appeal is hypnotic rather than melodic, the beat characterised by a deliberate sonic flatness. It was an instant hit – reaching No 3 in the charts – and now well on its way to summer pop ubiquity, a testament to Dave’s multifaceted pulling power.
sin embargo, Clash, with its UK rap froideur and fixation on Rolexes, does not feel representative of the album it is taken from – but then no track on it does. WAAITT is a diverse record in many respects: touched by Afrobeats, gospel, electronica, drill and R&B, its most recurring sonic feature is a series of mournful piano figures. The album encompasses many different voices and Dave seems to be making a point of letting his collaborators put their own stamp on his songs.
As on Psychodrama, the 23-year-old born David Omoregie enlists childhood friend Kyle Evans and J Hus affiliate Jae5 for production duties, but this time he swaps out his mentor Fraser T Smith – a stalwart who has worked with everyone from Craig David to Adele – for James Blake, an artist with his own distinctive sound: an eerie, digitally warped sadness. On In the Fire – a gospel-butressed production involving London indie-electronic duo Mount Kimbie – Dave lets Ghetts, Giggs, Fredo and Manchester rapper Meekz all have their say before he appears. Female voices – including R&B singer Snoh Aalegra and rapper ShaSimone – are all given extended airtime.
The tracks System and Lazarus are swept up in the buoyant influence of their Nigerian collaborators, Wizkid and BOJ respectively, and nod generously to Dave’s Nigerian heritage (his parents came to the UK when he was a baby). They follow a song called Three Rivers, which chronicles the experiences of various generations of immigrants to this country – Windrush, eastern European, Middle Eastern – over elegiac keys. It is one of only a handful of straightforward showcases for Dave’s most striking talent: an ability to distil awful but also sometimes ambivalent realities where the lines between hero and villain, victim and aggressor, can be painfully blurred.
The immigrant experience often forms the bedrock of Dave’s lyrics but it isn’t the headline topic of WAAITT. The abuse and exploitation of women is woven through its entirety. The centrepiece of Psychodrama was Lesley, an 11-minute tale of a toxic relationship involving a woman he met on the train; this time the subject is much closer to home.
What begins with In the Fire’s neatly devastating observation that “crime’s on the rise, hate’s on the rise / Feel like everythin’ but my mum’s pay’s on the rise” continues into a distressing account of his mother’s life on Heart Attack: “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.”
The outro is a recording of – presumably – his mother, who is utterly distraught, recalling the awful treatment she faced when she arrived in the UK and her devastation at the way life has turned out. It is hugely distressing to hear as a stranger, let alone as a son.
Towards the end of Heart Attack, the music drops out and all that remains is Dave’s voice; when the doleful piano returns, it feels superfluous. It underlines the fact that the primary impression left by WAAITT isn’t really a sonic one – there is no dominant sound here. Rather, its multiplicity speaks to Dave’s expansive intentions. Whether he is using his imagination or speaking from experience, he is engaged in a noble venture to articulate pain that many people would just rather not hear about. By dint of that alone, everyone should listen.