How important has the concept of love been to songwriters? About as important as the telescope is to an astronomer. Love has been the potent octane in pop music’s fuel tank since the first audio was pressed onto wax. That’s probably because trying to pin down its meaning is about as difficult as breaking into San Quentin.
Love is not like fear, anger, sadness, joy or any other chemical reactions in the brain. Those all feel the same no matter whose skin you're in. Instead, love seems greater than biological basis and, therefore, more open to artistic interpretation. Everyone from Walt Disney to The Beatles to LL Cool J have had their own distinct diagnosis. Now here comes Irish rapper Rejjie Snow, whose debut album, Dear Annie, relentlessly probes the well-covered topic in a way that feels fresh and vibrant.
It’s 6½ years and 2,500 rotations of the Earth since Alex Anyaegbunam mysteriously emerged through an internet gateway to stun us into a stupor. Back then he was operating under the moniker Lecs Luther, and those initial tracks were exhilarating slices of cool-hand hip-hop that saw the rising star rattle out syllables with all the complexity of a sci-fi supercomputer and the rhythm of a New Orleans jazz drummer.
He’s since changed his name, confirmed his status as Ireland’s most successful hip-hop export ever, and forged a small discography punctuated with experiments that land all over the stylistic map, veering from basement jazz club jams to barbed trap-rap rattlers, to politically engaged, conscious hip-hop.
Now, finally, Snow's oft-delayed debut LP is here. But instead of making a record that encapsulates his sonic journey so far, the emcee mutates once more to make an album that cuts his own chest wide open. As dedicated to conditions of the heart as any rap album since André 3000's half of Outkast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Snow's Dear Annie narrows his lens to relationships, human connection and his own sun, moon and stars.
New wave cinema
This is a lush, ambitious work that carries the DNA of 1960s French yé-yé records and new wave cinema – as much Godard as Gang Starr; more Truffaut than Tupac. Lyrics frequently come in French. Line up a scene from Godard's stylish classic Breathless and play Snow's flirtatious, Paris-leaning pop song Mon Amour and watch them co-exist beautifully.
Dotted throughout the album are interludes of Snow discussing tracks with an anonymous DJ. The chilled, late-night radio atmosphere of the segments adds an extra shade of tranquillity to the record as the rapper deals out high point after high point. The Ends finds Snow and guest Jesse James Solomon sounding like a couple of cocky young knuckleheads cruising for girls, while 23, a delicate duet with singer Caroline Smith, captures the friction of young love.
Snow will never be a knock-out singer, but his voice carries a charismatic tune. “I tattooed you right on my brain,” he sweetly declares. “Then why you wanna watch me drown?” Smith retorts. It’s a cutting depiction of how quickly a relationship can turn.
Though thematically cohesive, Dear Annie isn't one-paced. The bouncy guitar licks of Spaceships are reminiscent of Pharrell's forays into 1970s-style disco-funk. Room 27 matches squelchy, satisfying synth riffs with the kind of airy keys that could grab Frank Ocean's attention. Reminiscent of his jazzy earlier stuff, the sunken, doomed Oh No! drops Snow into a smoky speakeasy and puts a glass of neat bourbon in his hand, while the glitterball electronics of LMFAO boasts a blurry, cocaine-on-glass club groove.
There is a thin line between cuteness and triteness. Just once – on Rainbows – Snow ever so slightly falls into the latter. The song's chorus line repeats of "rainbows, rainbows, rainbows" comes with just a little too much syrup. And while his soft, often-tuneful rapping is lovely on the ear, sometimes I wish he'd throw off the shackles and spit those looping rhymes that so thrilled on on early recordings such as Dia Dhuit.
Snow's dedication to love also means the culling of great singles such as the snappy ode to getting high D.R.U.G.S., cutting protest song Crooked Cops and the booming Flexin'. Their inclusions would have increased the record's first service percentage. But all things considered, Snow's prioritisation of subject matter cohesion over simply putting out a set of good tracks justifies the lengthy time it has taken Dear Annie to crystallise.
The whole things ends with Greatness – a song in the grand tradition of rappers showing love to their mums. Over swirling keys, Snow thinks back to his youth – Sisqo records, 16-bit Sega videogames and beatings. He admits to battling depression, overindulging in intoxicants and struggling with success before signing off, "I love you momma". It's a low-key but meaningful thank-you to a woman helping him though his less-than-perfect tendencies and a fitting exclamation point on the first stage of Snow's career.
For too long there were too few Rejjie Snow songs in the world. Now here he is on album number one, attempting the impossible task of defining love over 61 minutes and producing a piece of work as impressive as it is thrilling.