Towards the end of Digga D’s third mixtape, there’s a brief track called Statement. It features nothing more than a beat, a mournful piano figure, a weeping violin and the 21-year-old rapper’s voice, relating a blend of aggressive street-level reportage, stuff about his dealings with the police – of which more later – and suggestions that what he really wants is true love. It ends with him comparing himself to the biggest stars in the UK rap firmament, then considering his own commercial prospects. “I’m as hard as Stormzy and Dave, what a statement to make, but I say what I say and I mean it,” he offers. “But you will not agree and say I’m too in these streets and the act that I got I should clean it.” Then he adds a final, valedictory “fuck you”.
You can see why he might respond that way: Digga D isn’t, at this point, at the platinum-selling level of Stormzy and Dave, but he’s doing pretty well for himself. A string of gold and silver singles; a previous mixtape, Made In the Pyrex, that got to No 3 in the album chart; enough clout to get big-name American rappers as guests on Noughty By Nature (B-Lovee drops a thrillingly raw-throated verse on What You Reckon, while Moneybagg Yo takes time out from releasing US chart-topping albums to appear on G Lock).
Moreover, he has achieved this under extraordinary circumstances. In 2018, Digga D and the other members of drill group 1011 were subject to an unprecedented criminal behaviour order that prevents him from inciting violence, mentioning certain areas of London or making references to real-life people or incidents in his lyrics. The BBC documentary Defending Digga D showed the effects: a rapper on the phone to his lawyer, running through tracks line by line, trying to work out if saying “jump out, try and put him in a coffin” is going to put him back in jail.
That said, the attention of the Met doesn’t seem to have altered Digga D’s approach much: even Noughty By Nature’s poppiest moment and solitary love song, Hold It Down, is couched in terms involving showing undying devotion through perjury and waiting until prison sentences are completed. He’s audibly a fan of 50 Cent: What You Reckon borrows its samples from his 2005 hit Best Friend; Hold It Down is based around 21 Questions; Pump 101’s title, beat and chorus are all derived from G-Unit’s Stunt 101. And if 50 Cent’s career tells you anything, it’s that the kind of trouble that would seem career-limiting in other lines of work can often have the opposite effect. 50 Cent, after all, went from being blackballed by the music business for writing the kind of rhymes that could get a person and their associates shot, to selling 30m albums.
From the start of Noughty By Nature, you’re up to your neck in cheffings, shanks and the boring up of opps, albeit with a variety of names and locations bleeped out. Whether that will do anything to stem crime in London is a moot point, but it certainly lends interest. If you’re so inclined, this is not just music but a puzzle to be solved – albeit fairly easily, as you don’t have to look too hard on the internet to find out who and where he’s talking about. There is also a wilful blurring of the line that separates reality from telling gritty stories. “Everything you hear me rapping about is all facts, nothing’s fabricated / This shit you hear me rapping about is all cap, everything’s exaggerated,” runs the album’s intro. The lyrical viewpoint of Alter Ego alternates between Digga D the rapper and Digga D the “trap boy”, still immersed in gang life. The violence could be wearying but his undeniably brilliant flow – nimble but punchy – invests it with drama.
As you might expect given his love of 50 Cent, there’s occasionally a hint of early 00s hip-hop lushness about the album’s sound, not least on the concluding Maverick Sabre feature Let It Go, and Digga is clearly trying to expand beyond drill to encompass trap and even pop balladry. This is sometimes to the album’s detriment. Its most thrilling moments come when it sticks fast to drill’s minimal and now distinctively British blueprint, rather than looking back towards the US. Musically, the best thing here may be Stuck In the Mud, an object lesson in making a little go a long way: there’s almost nothing to its sound beyond a beat and a weird, thin brass sample that weaves unsteadily around the rhythm track to unsettling effect – drill with its tempo slowed but the penetrating bass and eerie atmosphere remaining.
It doesn’t undermine his abundant artistry to suggest that unsettling people is at the root of Digga D’s success. An authentic whiff of danger, of parent-scaring notoriety, is a rare and potentially valuable commodity in 21st-century pop and rock music. This is a world of media training, relatably matey demeanours and pains being taken to say the right thing, where a desire not to cause offence – nor provoke even the faux-outrage that fuels some sections of social media – rules supreme. Under the circumstances, why would he follow the suggestion to clean up his act? Nothing about Noughty By Nature suggests he needs to, and nothing about it suggests his current success won’t grow.
What Alexis listened to this week
Say She She – Forget Me Not
Debut from Brooklyn trio on the reliably great Colemine label, a fabulous song infused with the wonky post-disco spirit of early 80s NYC.