A look at acts breaking at radio and retail and entering Billboard charts. This week: Soul Position, the Thrills and Dizzee Rascal.
IN POSITION: "8 Million Stories," the debut album from hip-hop duo Soul Position, is framed by three tracks dubbed "Candyland." The brief, sporadically placed interludes are filled with a collection of memories from the childhood of rapper Blueprint, from his favorite cartoons to the first time he made out.
On the album, in which many of the songs portray characters on the run -- from jobs, relationships and responsibilities -- the three parts of "Candyland" represent a forgotten image of the artist -- one in which his ideologies and dreams had not yet been shattered by the world around him.
Soul Position is hailed as a sort of underground supergroup. Blueprint has worked with the likes of Aesop Rock and was one-third of the group Greenhouse Effect. His partner in Soul Position is RJD2, a hip-hop collage artist who, like DJ Shadow, specializes is pasting together odd bits of long discarded records. Thanks to his breakthrough album "Deadringer," and his follow-up EP "The Horror," RJD2 is one his way to becoming the first real star of the Definitive Jux crew.
On "8 Million Stories," he takes a more subtle approach than on he does on his solo efforts, preferring to color the songs with sounds rather than dominate them with beats. The backdrops are filled with simple pleasures that only fully develop with repeated listens, such as the air-raid sirens that bleed into a gradually disintegrating keyboard on "Survival," or the horror movie organ of "Inhale."
The emphasis here is on Blueprint's raps, a choice that proves to be the right one as soon as Blueprint launches into a tirade about a girlfriend who's "too stuck up to eat fast food" on "The Jerry Springer Episode." Later, on "No Excuse for Lovin," he takes a turn for the serious, documenting the disconnect between true love and the images fed to us via pop-culture. He tells the tale of a mother whose one-night stands may have given her "the escape from lonely days," yet she still "never felt better than when they parted ways."
Blueprint truly shines when he tackles corporate America, providing three distinct viewpoints on "Just Think," "Fuckajob" and "Look of Pain." The first two describe the life of someone so deep in student loans that he's doomed to a pointless life of middle management. Warning against ever befriending a coworker, Blueprint spits, "50 years of experience/ Dependable / One merger, one meeting / Expendable." On "Look of Pain," he applies the rules of capitalism to drug dealing, where violence erupts when the dream of becoming a "black professional" proves impossible.
Soul Position released a six-song EP last year, and favorable reviews helped build the hype for "8 Million Stories." Released earlier this month on Rhymesayers/Fat Beats/Razor & Tie, the album bowed two weeks ago at No. 91 on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, giving the act its first appearance on one of the magazine's tallies.
Soul Position will be touring the East Coast throughout December.
NEW THRILL: The first day of winter is just around the corner, but those missing the sunshine rays of summer may find some warmth in the soft melodies and breezy harmonies of the Thrills. The group may hail from Dublin, but first album "So Much for the City" is an 11-song ode to California.
The set's lead single, "Santa Cruz (You're Not That Far)," is a pleasingly catchy trip through California's pop history, with Beach Boy harmonies, a Bryds-like structure and a lead vocalist in Conor Deasy who bears an aural resemblance to Grandaddy's Jason Lytle. Songs such as "Big Sur," "Hollywood Kids" and "Your Love is Like Las Vegas" strike similar ground, incorporating light keyboard and banjo touches for a collection of mid-tempo, beach-ready songs.
The quintet, comprised of five Dublin friends all currently about the age of 23, have been playing together sine the late 1990s. The band's direction was solidified in 1999, when the group took a four-month sojourn to San Diego. When back in Ireland, the Thrills hooked up with a local label, but nothing materialized, and the band eventually signed with Virgin Records. Buzz on the group started about a year ago, when former Smiths leader Morrissey tapped the Thrills as his support act for a London concert.
"So Much for the City" was recorded in Los Angeles with producer Tony Hoffer (Air, Beck, Turin Brakes). The album, which was sold at most retailers for less than $10, debuted at No. 14 on Billboard's Top Heatseekers album, giving the young act its first appearance on any of Billboard's charts.
The Thrills will be touring U.K. clubs through the end of the year.
GETTIN' DIZZEE: For the second year in a row, the winner of the U.K.'s prestigious Panasonic Mercury Prize went to a hip-hop artist. Ms. Dynamite walked away with the award in 2002. Despite scoring a hit album overseas, she has attained only modest success in the U.S. Dizzee Rascal was honored this year, and while the hype machine was not yet started for the stateside release of his album, he's already making an impact on Billboard's charts.
XL Recordings/Matador will release "Boy in Da Corner" Jan. 20 in the U.S. The album, which the 19 year-old Rascal (real name: Dylan Mills) began recording when he was 16, is a collection of coming-of-age songs set in urban London, featuring characters who are too broke, too violent and too young to be pregnant.
"A lot of the hip-hop scene should take to it," Rascal recently told Billboard. "Even techno and punk people will like it. Everyone can get something out of it ... It's very street. The fans can get a sense of inner-city life in the U.K. just like hip-hop gives you a real sense of inner-city life [in the U.S.]."
By the time "Boy in Da Corner" hits the shelves of U.S. retailers, Rascal may already be a well-known name in America. Thanks to a little help from pals Basement Jaxx, Rascal is currently appearing on one of Billboard's charts.
The London duo of Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Burton released its latest Astralwerks set, "Kish Kash," last month. The album's lead single, "Lucky Star," in which Rascal's high-octane raps are laced with wild, Middle Eastern-influenced house beats, is becoming a hit in U.S. dance clubs. "Lucky Star" debuted two weeks ago at No. 38 on Billboard's Hot Dance Club Play chart. The song was up to No. 34 last week.
To get a taste of Rascal on his own, head to the Matador Records Web site to download songs from his debut offering.