The famous "Mercury Prize curse" is, of course, a myth. The likes of Primal Scream, Suede, PJ Harvey, Dizzee Rascal and Arctic Monkeys certainly didn't struggle after picking up the gong. In fact, the only recent winner who had a serious commercial wobble was rapper Speech Debelle.
A brilliant, personal, understated record, Speech Therapy was never going to match Pulp or M People in terms of units. It sold 3,000 copies by the time it won the prize, shifting around 10,000 in total. The overwhelming post-win expectations caused a rift and split from label Big Dada, and it seemed a promising career had been shunted off track.
But from seemingly nowhere last summer, Speech re-united with Big Dada and hooked up with Roots Manuva and Realism to release one of the tracks of the year. Informed by the Arab spring, the death of Smiley Culture and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 'Blaze Up A Fire' was a simultaneous warning shot and call to arms. Presciently forecasting the London riots, it was released soon after and is quite possibly the artistic encapsulation of that crazy moment in British history.
It's the standout track on Freedom of Speech, but its got some great company. 'Studio Backpack Rap' is a storming opener, the energy and frustration of the past three years exploding onto the tapes in a cascade of energy and fast-flowing rhymes about the homespun production of her man Kwes. It's all topped off with a wonderful lyrical nod to The Notorious B.I.G.'s 'Juicy' ("She knows the words to the world's best lyrics / 'It was all a dream' / She used to read Smash Hits magazine / But now she smashes crashes on the keys").
The album is a lot edgier than its predecessor, but it's not all hi-energy, in-your-face stuff. The personal is still present and correct in the swooning, string-laden 'Elephant'. Blame is chucked at the lads on 'X Marks The Spot' which rips apart a bloke still way too into his former lover, contrasting with 'Shawshank Redemption', where Speech turns her peircing rhymes back on herself. ("I never called / And you were my only / Wounds are raw/ Now I'm lonely").
The introspective 'Angel Wings' is the only moment here that fails to connect. You don't begrudge the honest sentiment ("I know these writers and bloggers wanna hate me/ Cause I said that I would win they called me arrogant"), but feels too fey and self-pitying compared to the music that surrounds it.
Tracks like 'The Problem' and 'Collapse' focus Speech's unforgiving lyrical flow on the social, political and economic clusterf**k of living in 2012. And somehow, there's even room for 'I'm With It' - a soul-disco anthem celebrating love like a gorgeous heart-shaped glitterball spinning into eternity at 45rpm.
Tracks to download: 'Blaze Up A Fire', 'I'm With It', 'Sun Dog', 'The Problem', 'Studio Backpack Rap'
If you like this, you'll like: Roots Manuva, Nas, The Streets
Listen to Speech Debelle's 'Blaze Up A Fire' featuring Roots Manuva and Realism below: