The Friday before last, on the 8th of March at the stroke of midnight, the mononymous Dave dropped his debut album PSYCHODRAMA. In doing so he graduated from his role as prodigal son to bona fide king of UK rap. The 20-year-old MC’s debut album not only became the first British rap record to top the albums chart since Stormzy’s ‘Gang Signs & Prayer’ in 2017, but it did so with a bare minimum of features, putting the Streatham native front and centre for the entirety of its 51-minute run-time. The result is a story told in Dave’s own words, a rundown of the idiosyncrasies of the rapper’s life – the confidence that comes with success and recognition, the anxiety that stems from being in the public eye. Dave at no point shies away from confronting his contrasting emotions – emotions borne of his meteoric rise to fame but that all of us can relate to in aspects of our lives. Art at its best is a reflection of reality, and this unflinchingly honest and impressively personal album paints a vivid picture of Dave’s; by the end you not only feel like you’ve got to know the rapper, but also that you’ve learnt something about yourself.
The name psychodrama has two meanings, both of which are strongly related to the content and deliverance of the album. The first meaning is psychodrama as a form of psychotherapy, in which the patient dramatizes a part of their life or their psyche in order to evaluate their behaviour and better understand themselves. The second meaning of psychodrama is as a genre of literature, a form of psychological fiction in which there is a focus not just on the actions of the characters, but the motivations that drive them. Both themes are prevalent throughout, but particularly that of therapy. The album opens with a vocal skit from a character who assumes the role of Dave’s therapist “Tuesday 23rd of January 2018…I’m here with David, this is our first session”. This character appears throughout the album, centralising the idea of the whole album as a psychodrama, the music fulfilling a therapeutic role for the MC.
Pyschodrama involves role-playing real life situations, or externalised mental processes in a group setting, allowing the patient to investigate their life and their consciousness. The album can therefore be seen as a projection of Dave’s mental state, which is initially fragmented and confused. The opener, ‘Psycho’, starts with lines like “but if you’re looking for a psycho you got one/ I thought I had a screw loose, but I lost one” delivered over a sultry, brooding instrumental. Suddenly a beat switch out of nowhere leads to cocksure punchlines delivered with a skippy flow over a bouncy, energetic riddim (“I just wanna take a pretty woman for a test drive/ if I bring her to my room and I press I/ Guarantee she’s gonna see the force like an ex-wife”). Abruptly the beat then completely breaks down and the mood jarringly switches to confessional and conflicted – “I’m a careful, humble, reckless, arrogant, extravagant/ nigga probably battling with manic depression”. As the minor chords on the piano chime he bares the full extent of his vulnerability “man I need some therapy/my girl saying that she’ll never leave/ I’m scared shes gonna find a better me/ deeper insecurities”. It’s a sonic manifestation of mental illness, the highs and lows of depression embodied in each change of beat.
The opening section of the album centres on the environment that has caused some of the major conflicts that Dave has had to confront in life. ‘Streatham’ is an ingenious reflection on what stress can do to a person, particularly when there is a constant battle between two conflicting paths “teachers were giving out tests/ same time the mandem were giving out testers”. On ‘Black’, which we went through in depth a few weeks ago, this takes on a specifically racial aspect, highlighting the additional struggle of growing up black as well as working class.
As the psychodrama progresses, Dave begins to focus more on his relationships, leading to some lighter-hearted and more easily palatable scenes. Whilst ‘Purple Heart’ still has its contradictions, beginning with some incongruously cynical bars – “You’re asking what it’s like to love I told her love’s a game/ you learn that love is pain, then learn to love the pain” – over the velvety Kyle Evans and Fraser T. Smith instrumental, it quickly becomes a love song proper. The cynicism fades away as Dave sings tenderly to his love interest, doubling down on the intergalactic wordplay throughout, for example “Popstar, I got you singing like a rockstar/ McCartney, she interstellar like Jupiter”. Whilst Dave’s discography has never been short on sharp punchlines or word-bending double entendres, the way he links it all thematically together on this one – crafting puns with everything from shooting stars to star signs – is, forgive me, out of this world. The good vibes continue on ‘Location’, where Jae5 and Burna Boy bring the afrobeat vibes; it’s a celebratory track, indicative of the time’s when Dave can enjoy some of the fruits of his success – girls, money and vacations.
The next chapter of Dave’s story features a surprising cameo in the form of incarcerated rapper J Hus, who is currently serving time for knife possession. Fortunately, it seems that before he went away he was able to record with Dave, resulting in one of the best tracks on the album. It’s a masterpiece on which the two rappers go back to back, trading bars that highlight both the bravado and vulnerability of street life. Over a simple but utterly infectious beat produced by IO and TobiShyBoy both rappers affirm their superiority to their peers – “we on the same streets but we don’t play the same game” (J Hus) – whilst simultaneously acknowledging the precautions they’re forced to take – “keep it to yourself, people wanna talk/ flossing in the gossips how you end up in a war” (Dave). The natural chemistry between the two is evident, allowing the MCs to seamlessly overlap each other, sometimes mid-bar, with such ease and fluidity that the transitions are barely noticeable.
The time Dave spent on this album, recording for which began in January 2018 as you’ll remember, is evident as you listen; each track is a triumph in its own right, whilst playing a crucial role in the makeup of the whole. The absolute zenith though is the 11-minute epic ‘Lesley’. This track is more of a short story than a song, a harrowing novella that takes us through the ups and downs of Lesley’s life and her on-again off-again relationship with her abusive boyfriend Jason. In the spirit of psychodrama, we are privy to Lesley’s thoughts and actions and consequently we feel every gut-wrenching twist to her tale through Dave’s masterful storytelling. It concludes with a 2-minute outro, featuring vocals from the album’s third and final featured artist Ruelle, and the lyrics and beautiful vocalisation really top off the atmosphere of the piece. Finally, Dave’s therapist makes his last appearance, congratulating the rapper on the progress he’s made and how he’s learned to understand his emotions and be in control of them.
As we reach the final chapter, it feels like Dave’s story comes to its natural conclusion, for now at least, as he addresses his brother Christopher – who provides the intro and outro over a phone call from prison. The track is a conversation between the two, one in which Dave is able to confront his issues and his emotions without losing control of them as he did earlier in the album. Talking about the day his brother was sentenced he’s able to speak the line “The pill I had to swallow wasn’t bitter, it was cyanide” before calmly acknowledging “I learn over time, separation issues I describe/ are probably the reason that I struggle feeling anything”. The final bar before his brother’s outro, in which Christopher uses the biblical story of Jesse and Samuel to proclaim his younger brother the chosen one, is “The past is just the reason I had came to this/ I thank god for the pain because it made me this”. Thus, the circle is finally complete, the psychodrama therapy has taken Dave from his initial laments of “Stop all the pain/ how do you stop all the pain” to this point of acceptance. And we the audience, in observing the process, have learnt something about pain too, and it’s never sounded quite so sweet.
Stand out tracks – It’s almost impossible to pick, the album should really be heard as a whole for full effect but ‘Purple Heart’, ‘Disaster’ and ‘Lesley’ are standout moments