“What’s wrong with the world?” “Has the world gone mad?” “How did we get here and where do we go now?” Plenty of artists—from TV on the Radio to Erykah Badu—explored these questions across excellent albums in 2008; The Bug’s London Zoo was the only one to ask them point-blank. A hard-charging, unapologetic, sprawling mess of an album, London Zoo may prove as much of a game-changer for dubstep as It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back did for rap—which would make Untrue dubstep’s Paid in Full. Think about it: Burial, like Rakim, is an artist with more talent at his disposal than most, who took his chosen genre to the next level by expanding its range, and bringing it to a wider audience. Rakim inserted complex rhyme patterns, poetic concepts and long-form storytelling into the rap construct; Burial brought hip-hop production tricks, pop aspirations, and a wicked sense of humor to dubstep. In contrast to the blueprint-defining Paid In Full, It Takes A Nation Of Millions felt like the immediate discovery of rap’s punk rock. London Zoo brings the same counter to Untrue, offering a political manifesto that challenges aesthetically as well as socially. You needn’t look to far to find the lyrical themes of London Zoo—they’re laid into the song titles: “Insane,” “Angry,” “Too Much Pain,” “Murder We,” “Fuckaz,” “Warning,” “Judgement.” The Bug reinforces the scathing, hopeless paranoia of the lyrics with ghostly production, cranking up the bass so that it sounds like you’re getting repeatedly slapped in the face, weaving beats out of ambient sounds, allowing silence and space to do a lot of the communicating. He resists giving the music an easy entrance point, and the outcome is an album that actually sounds like as much of a wake-up call as it says it is.
In addition to Public Enemy’s magnum opus (as well as Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, come to think of it), London Zoo also resembles a more recent classic—M.I.A.’s classic Kala (which, incidentally, I’m ready to say The Factual Opinion grossly underrated last year.) Like M.I.A., The Bug uses spare production reminiscent of early grime and hip-hop, and has a knack for matching up unrelated musical styles. London Zoo fuses dancehall and dubstep in a way that expands the possibilities of both genres, and The Bug reveals an ambition as far-reaching as M.I.A.’s—not only with London Zoo’s global-thinking premise, but in its willingness to court a crossover audience by quoting Tears For Fears and Bobby Brown, the way M.I.A. jacked Pixies and The Modern Lovers. On “Insane,” Warrior Queen turns lines from “Mad World” and “My Perogative” into wounded cries. Elsewhere, she seems to revel in her own insanity. The whole album lives in similarly slippery psychological territory, but The Bug never travels too far away from his central conceit: At its heart, London Zoo is a state of the union address, and things are not looking good. On “Murder We,” Ricky Ranking sings “People are turning so mad/The place is turning so bad/The streets are flowing blood red.” Tippa Irie’s list of things that make him angry on the lead track includes Bush, Blair, suicide bombers, the ozone layer, African poverty, New Orleans, and “America is one big soap opera.” Rather than settling for a political screed, however, The Bug and Tippa Irie turn the song into a rallying cry—or a party jam—chanting, “So many things that get me angry/So many things that get me mad/So many things that get me angry/I gotta say” like he’s trying to turn every Rage Against the Machine fan in the house into a dancehall politico. “Skeng” sounds like someone moonwalking through a metal detector with a pocket full of loose change, while “You & Me” and album closer “Judgement” aim for a creepier, low key vibe. “Judgement” contains some of the best straightforward singing on the entire album. An R&B-tinged voice coos in between harder edged choruses, care of Ricky Ranking. As he sweetly closes out the song and the album, the singer gently sums up the need for The Bug’s macabre world view: “So much people are losing their minds/’Cause we living in a serious time/I guess it coming like a judgment sign/People have killing on their mind.”
-Martin Brown, 2008