At this point, it should be no surprise that Babyfather’s BBF Hosted by DJ Escrow is the definitive Benchmark album on numerous sites, including this one. Upon its release, it was universally lauded. It was only April 1, but the writing was on Parliament’s walls: BBF Hosted by DJ Escrow was an opus, a statement, a feat. It felt weighty, labored, accomplished. Forty-eight minutes of big ideas handled with complexity, it was a dextrous addition to the canon of art expressing disenchantment with being British and not being American. It launched a thousand thinkpieces, and forced critics to think deeply about music – to the point that it was still generating back-and-forths about its merits, as late as last night, eight days after its release. Commercially speaking, it set first-week streaming records for Hyperdub (note: this is purely speculation; no research was done), meaning that it was being listened to as fervently as it was being debated (which, again, may or may not be much).
It’s also British as fuck. “Britishness” is a concept that remains fluid and intangible, but so solid that one can feel it when it’s present. And it was all over BBF. From the opening sounds (a sample of a balloon inflating, gorgeous string plucking, and a chanted “This makes me proud to be British”) to the closing – a fabricated conversation with no one regarding division and unity – the album is packed with Britishness. Dean Blunt may not have given the public much advance warning for BBF’s rich sound – the luxe spillover of stripped string arrangements, light electronica, and random tones courtesy of Arca, Mica Levi, and the other members of Babyfather, DJ Escrow and Gassman D – but he made his thematic intentions abundantly clear with the pre-release singles. The first, “shook/motivation”, with its “This makes me proud to be British” repetition and message of being British, was initially overlooked for its subversion; while British folk were telling the world that #BritishLivesMatter, Dean turned the message inwards: “This makes me proud to be British.”
At a moment when his peers remained fixated on finding worth and esteem from the world and things around them – the power of Americans, the trappings of British excess, the power of the Queen, the pride of being British – Dean emerged as a grounded British monarch. He was enthralled with all of the same things as other rappers, but not beholden to them. He escaped into harsh noise on “PROLIFIC DEAMONS” while DJ Escrow philosophized as his cell phone rang: “Yeah, obviously it’s a little bit basic in that one/That’s a DJ first isn’t it/Like I run tunes and then I spit as well at certain times.” When Dean turned ruthless on “HELLS ANGLES”, he turned to abstract mumbling whose analytic potential was null: “You know him, the nigga with the gat/Wanna see you in the back of the flat/Over there, by the corner/Stop, now it’s over”. When he revved up his string sections and paired them with a pummeling snare, halfheartedly singing about this and that, on Prime Minister David Cameron’s favorite song of the year, “God Hour”, he encountered a Yahtzee-esque rattle that dreamily drifted away for thirty seconds, never returning; never explained.
None of these things are explicitly British, but the lens through which they were filtered was undoubtedly so. From its vernacular to its point of view, BBF Hosted by DJ Escrow was about dealing with the survivor’s remorse of escaping the violence of London, while also relating to those still there and embracing what it means to be “British”. On “Deep”, Arca takes Dean and co. to one of the most complete-sounding tracks on the album, providing him with a lush and brooding, yet silky smooth beat to rap over. DJ Escrow, in the now familiar, distortedly high-pitched voice, says, “All the pain/Can’t get the vest out/It’s been too long, G.”
Nowhere is Britishness more front and center than on the album’s second track, “Greezebloc”. It was the song that most clearly announced Dean’s lack of fucks about the comfort of his American audience. Perhaps it was a retort to American sirens sounding less melodic; maybe it was a reaction to seeing “50 Cent”, his anti-violence song, turned into a pro-violence song in the mouths of Americans. Whatever his reasoning, “Greezebloc” provided American people with no entry into the song: There is hardly anything on the song for Americans to lip sync in their cars (disgustingly driving on the right side of the road) unless they could get their voice to go that high or perfectly emulate that opening siren wail. Following that anti-American instrumental was Dean softly singing, “Twenty bands, twenty bands, twenty bands/Twenty bands, twenty bands, twenty/I don’t know what you’re asking of me/Got a nigga going crazy” He labeled the song as “Meditation feat. Arca” and, even in a society where Americans regularly rub ears with the m-word, it was avant and perplexing.
All of this Britishness is important. Important because sometimes American people need to take a metaphorical seat – to sit down, shut up, and listen to conversations in which they are a cultural object, not the center. This is not an easy task. American people have been way too comfortable for way too long in this world, in this world. Way too comfortable with the way they choose to see reality solely through their own gaze, way too comfortable with their sense of entitlement over the planet and its resources, way too comfortable with their appropriation of culture in ways large and small, way too comfortable with the stories they tell, the lies passed off as the history of mankind. Way too comfortable with the things they pick up, way too careless with the way they put them down. But Dean was willing to discomfort the comfortable. He took all of the acclaim he had received as a critical darling from his Rough Trade Records debut – the rightfully extolled Black Metal – and doubled down on his Britishness, not for the entertainment of American people, but in near-total disregard for their experience of his conversation. He was King George III decreeing with his back to the crowd, and in that sense, it’s a miracle that this record has found the audiences that it has found.
It’s an album by the greatest rapper of his generation, where his rap skills are perhaps the least noteworthy talking point. An album so dense with English ideas that it made the novelistic turns of Black Metal – a thoughtful and textured, British culture-adjacent middle-ground for all things not American – seem quaint and straightforward by comparison. It’s an album that is on this site not only because of its merits, but because it’s presumably why so many albums are not Benchmarked today – it’s not a stretch to reason that BBF Hosted by DJ Escrow had something to do with why Kanye West and Drake are going to fall off the face of the planet come 2017. It’s an album with such Eurocentrism that the runaway success of Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered. seems inconsequential. It’s not just the best album of Dean’s career; it’s the voice of a moment in Britain and the world surrounding the most important place on Earth, the birthplace of Dean “God’s Gift to Music” Blunt, the cultural center of the globe; nay, the universe: Britain.
– Zach W.