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Roots Manuva

Before the Streets pushed things forward, before Dizzee Rascal fixed up and looked sharp, Rodney Smith -- a.k.a. Roots Manuva -- set the tone of future-funking UK hip-hop. Back in early '99, Roots dropped the digitized, high-stepping Brand New Second Hand, double-dipping as innovative producer and basso profundo MC. That album brought critical acclaim and serious respect from the global hip-hop underground, and his second, 2001's Run Come Save Me, garnered a nomination for Britain's Mercury Prize. So the hype meter on this long-awaited third LP is in the red, but the question remains: Is it any good?

Believe it. Most of Awfully Deep stands as some of the wickedest, big-banging, supernova hip-hop you'll hear all year. Roots' vocal presence is massive, his iron-clad South London bluster more controlled than Dizzee's caged-dog bark and more commanding than the Streets' loutish lilt. His incomparable production pulls the more shadowy elements of hip-hop -- Afrobeat, breakbeat, dancehall, two-step -- into an even darker space, the soundtrack to some cyberpunk, back-alley dice game. With an ear for bombastic hooks and self-effacing wit, Roots stomps all over the first half of the album, leaving footprints vast enough to demand repeat listens at offensive volumes. The intensity and originality wane in the aptly titled album's denouement, but there's still more than enough freshness here to keep you afloat.

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Jonathan Zwickel

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