Life is rarely dull with one-man drama magnet/record factory Richard ‘Wiley’ Cowie.
The Ascent is complete confirmation of that: the idiosyncratic east London rapper leaked this album before its release after a dispute with iTunes, simultaneously labelling it his penultimate full-length missive before hanging up his mic.
Despite a somewhat scattergun approach to quality control characterising a sprawling discography, among numerous nuanced pop crossovers Wiley has always maintained the gritty edge that made him a grime godfather.
That contrast is referenced in equal measure early on here, with a big and bashy twosome giving way to a brace of wider appeal.
First Class, featuring predictably spittle-splattered contributions from Lethal Bizzle and Kano, and grime MC posse cut Skillzone keep street kids and longstanding followers engaged. They’re a bitter one-two intro to the sweeter pills of Hands in the Air (replete with forgettable Tulisa hook) and drum‘n’bass-flavoured, Ms D-helmed jaunt Reload.
Ms D returns for sunny summer 2012 smash Heatwave, hamstrung slightly by its comparative relic status. Indeed, having released an album more or less every year for the past decade, Wiley’s ability to force the zeitgeist is arguably both his greatest strength and foible.
While keeping his music fantastically fresh and of the moment, this often causes a speedy ageing process. In short, don’t put a nine-month-old single on a Wiley album, because he will have sonically rushed three-quarters of a year ahead of it.
His loveable eccentricities also render So Alive as the album’s awkward bastard son. Linking up with LA pop-rappers Far East Movement probably scores maximum record label exec thumbs ups, but shoehorning American accents next to Wiley’s unmistakably British flow feels like washing down a hotdog with a pint of real ale.
Still, by now Wiley has earned a free pass to follow his whims from time to time, however incongruous the results. Granted, this is a country mile away from the most coherent album of all time, but you can only hope that The Ascent’s title continues to apply to Wiley’s deserved trajectory as a genuine genre game-changer.