Dave Steps Up On We’re All Alone In This Together
This week’s big event was supposed to be the release of Kanye West’s Donda — the extremely hyped-up return of rap’s most troubled star, attempting to retake his place at the center of the conversation after years in the TMZ wilderness. For about 45 minutes, Kanye West did retake that spot. He stood alone in the center of a stadium, blasting his just-mixed album to thousands of fans on a soundsystem so shitty that most of them couldn’t make out much beyond pure blare. Then the album didn’t come out, and now West is apparently still living in that Atlanta stadium, tweaking and futzing and maybe still attempting to fix “Wolves.” Perhaps Kanye West stood in the middle of that field and realized that he didn’t like what he was hearing, that his album wasn’t the opus he’d planned. Perhaps, after that delay, Donda will come out next week. Perhaps it’ll never come out. Point is: Turning an album into a major rap event is hard. If you’re making music on a stage that large, you’re disappointing somebody.
The ongoing Donda saga, in its way, highlights just how impressive the week’s real rap-album event is. The same day that we were supposed to get Donda, the South London rapper Dave released We’re All Alone In This Together, which might be the most hyped-up sophomore album in UK rap history. David Orobosa Omoregie isn’t a huge name in America, and he probably never will be; his music is too specific to the UK. In the UK, though, Dave became a superstar at the age of 20, and his 2019 debut album Psychodrama did everything that a debut album could possibly do.
Dave was a phenom even before Psychodrama. Dave made an impact on London’s YouTube-freestyle circuit as a babyfaced kid; when he was 16, Drake jumped on a remix of Dave’s single “Wanna Know,” which is really the biggest vote of confidence that a teenage artist can get. Two years later, Dave’s single “Funky Friday” reached #1 in the UK. But Psychodrama didn’t just capitalize on Dave’s bubbling stardom. It presented Dave as a sensitive and wounded young artist, someone trying to make sense of racism and trauma and familial strife. Dave had gravity and emotion in his voice, and he talked about things like his brother’s life sentence with raw-nerve vulnerability. Psychodrama resonated, and it connected.
Psychodrama was a critical smash and a commercial one. The album debuted at #1 in the UK. It went platinum. It won the Mercury Prize and the BRIT Award for Album Of The Year. (Before Psychodrama, the only album that had ever won both awards was the Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, back in 2006.) At the BRIT Awards ceremony last year, just before lockdown, Dave gave one of the most stirring awards-show performances in recent years, rapping his Psychodrama manifesto “Black” while playing piano and then standing up to deliver a new verse where he called out the specific injustices that he saw around him.
In America, Psychodrama built up a critical reputation. Some people heard it, and those people were generally impressed. In the UK, it was a different story. Over there, Psychodrama was a comet striking the earth. People get paralyzed when trying to figure out how to follow something like that. Dave did not. I don’t think We’re All Alone In This Together is a perfect album, but it’s definitely an example of a younger star stepping up, seizing his moment, and delivering something with serious heft. By all accounts, Dave, now 23, is a shy and reserved young man, but he thrives in the spotlight.
Have you ever been to a music festival in a foreign country and watched an artist you’d never heard of rock a vast and euphoric crowd? If you never have, you should. I recommend it. It’s a beautifully disorienting feeling — all these people living for this thing that you were barely even aware existed. For an American, hearing We’re All Alone In This Together is a bit like that. It’s not just that the sound and the frame of reference are distinctly British, although they are. (On the single “Clash,” Dave flexes blithely over the spacious creep of UK drill: “Puttin’ in labour, this that Jeremy Corbyn one.”) It’s more that Dave and his guests are already carrying themselves as arena-level stars, secure that people are going to care about what they have to say. And they have a lot to say.
On the opening track from We’re All Alone In This Together, Dave hears from a young fan who’s considering suicide. He hears back from the kid the next day, and the kid is feeling better. That experience sticks with Dave. We’re All Alone is the work of someone who realizes that he’s having an effect on people’s lives and who takes that responsibility seriously. There’s plenty of mass-appeal pop music on the album; it’s laced with moments of jagged club music and fluidly spiky afrobeats. Dave understands that he’s an entertainer, and his flexes have force and swagger. But Dave also sounds emboldened to get even deeper into his own story — and in the stories of people like him — than he already did on Psychodrama.
Dave is the son of two Nigerian immigrants, and his father was deported when he was a baby. On his new album, Dave has a lot to say about the immigrant experience in a country that’s got its own long history of racism and colonialism. When Dave talks about that history, he brings real self-righteous fire: “Imagine the place wherе you raise your kids/ The only place you livе says you ain’t a Brit/ They’re deporting our people, and it makes me sick/ ‘Cause they was broken by the country that they came to fix.” He talks about growing up in a family of people considered invisible in their own country and about the disrespectful things that people do without even realizing: “Nightclub toilet, you peed on the seat/ ‘Cause you don’t know how it feels when your mom’s gotta clean shit/ And her boss treats her like she don’t even mean shit/ And she gotta wait for the bus in the rain and it’s freezing.”
There are moments of towering pride on We’re All Alone. The triumphant posse cut “In The Fire,” for instance, features four other UK rappers — Fredo, Meekz Manny, Ghetts, and Giggs — all of whom are the sons of immigrants. Those guests don’t get feature credits on the album. Instead, it’s an Astroworld situation; for fans of UK rap, these voices are recognizable as soon as they show up. On “Three Rivers,” the next song, Dave raps about the experiences of different generations of immigrants from different parts of the world — from the West Indies on the first verse, Eastern Europe on the second, the Middle East on the third. Another song ends with a long audio clip of Dave’s mother sobbing violently while talking about the things that she had to get through in finding a new home for her family. It’s heavy.
Plenty of We’re All Alone is much more specific to Dave himself, and a lot of that is heavy, too. Many of the songs on We’re All Alone are long, and they go deep on personal struggles. Dave talks about falling in love with a white girl and about how cultural differences tore the relationship apart. He also takes himself to task for cheating. There are self-aware little notes in there — “I’d rather rap about arguing with my girl than fucking your girl, but I don’t mind because the both are true” — but they don’t hide the reality that this guy is baring his soul at length. He also gets very specific about generational trauma: “I was in intensive care when I was born, mommy fell down the stairs/ Whether I was gonna live or not was something uncertain/ I used the word ‘fell’ with the commas inverted.” Musically, the album travels a sad internal landscape. Dave produced or co-produced every song on the LP, and it’s full of plangent pianos and strings. James Blake contributed to half the songs, and the depressive headspace is familiar from Blake’s own records.
It’s tough to talk about We’re All Alone In This Together without making it sound like an eat-your-vegetables album. We are, after all, dealing with eight-minute songs about trials and traumas, with James Blake on the boards. Most of the songs on this record are not party music. But Dave has the presence and the confidence that even his most sweepingly sad moments pull you in. None of it is forced. When the voice of Daniel Kaluuya shows up at the end of “Three Rivers,” it seems fitting even if you don’t know that the actor and Dave are friends. Kaluuya picks roles in prestigey movies, but even though he has an Oscar, his movies don’t feel like Oscar bait. He’s simply a deeply absorbing and compelling performer. So is Dave. With We’re All Alone In This Together, Dave has made an album worthy of his considerable hype.
1. Gabe ‘Nandez – “Coupé Decalé” (Feat. Elucid)
There is so much open space in this production, so much empty room in between the beeps and the hums and the clicks, and Gabe ‘Nandez and Elucid use it to spin whole webs. This is one of those underground rap songs that can make you feel like you’re staring into the center of the universe.
2. Maxo Kream & OTB Fastlane – “Smoke”
Maxo Kream has this rare ability. He can sound measured and conversational while still making me want to drive a motorcycle through my own window. This shit goes hard.
3. Sauce Walka – “Hawk A Snake”
Sauce Walka gets about five bars into this before he mashes down on some kind of internal gas pedal and immediately zooms off into mouth-frothing delirium. Then he stays there for the whole rest of the song. When the flow changes, my pupils dilate and I go into a different state of being.
4. Young Dolph – “Blu Boyz” (Feat. Key Glock & Snupe Bandz)
At this point in history, Young Dolph is on a very small list of rappers who consistently cause me to make ugly faces when I hear their verses for the first time. It’s totally involuntary. I hear talking about how he’s the plug and he’s his own goon and his trap is hotter than Arizona in June, and my face contorts into that “ugh, disgusting, too good” grimace.
5. Xavier Wulf & Quintin Lamb – “Damn Well”
It’s hard to do the eerie nursery-rhyme cadence right, but when you hit it, you can truly hypnotize some minds.