James Deacon reviews Care City by Deyah, the winner of the Welsh Music Prize 2020.
Although in previous years the shortlist for the Welsh Music Prize has always been proudly diverse, reflecting the richness of Welsh musical culture, Deyah is the first black artist to win the prize; a milestone that should not go unnoticed – and one that should spur further recognition for more black artists in Wales.
Her album Care City has risen above some impressive names on this year’s shortlist, including the likes of Gruff Rhys, Colorama and Ani Glass, to win the award. And Care City is a worthy winner, a brilliant multi-genre project, that mixes the personal with the social; it’s a self-produced tour de force which will help to put our underappreciated urban musical culture on the map.
It opens with “Terminal 7 (intro)”, a track that starts with a spacey instrumental, sonically descending, followed by a half-rapped, half-spoken verse that speaks bleakly on society’s state, but reminds us of our blessings and the light at the end of the tunnel. It establishes the mood of the album perfectly; Deyah shifts between wide-eyed optimism and searing pessimism. Care City is a short album, but its scope and ambition is huge and it explores a variety of themes with confidence. “Okoposire”, the second track, confirms that Care City will in fact be a concept album, similar to Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool (Deyah cites the Chicago rapper’s 2007 album as one of her biggest influences). “Welcome to Care City,” Deyah says in a deceptively warm opening; “a place where your pain is welcome, your past is accepted and your future is supported. We hope you enjoy your stay.”
These words not only create a sense this album is a safe space, but also introduce the themes that the album delves into in its 26 minute duration. Deyah frequently pairs vulnerability with hope and this, in turn, is balanced with her Nigerian roots. Deyah is clear from the start that Care City is not just a collection of tracks; it’s a state of mind. Although hip-hop has a rich history when it comes to concept albums, the idea of an album being a state of mind, a feeling – rather than narrative-driven as with The Roots’ Undun (2011) or Ghostface Killah’s 36 Seasons (2014) – is something that is rare amongst the abundance of other brilliant concept albums. Care City is about belonging as much as it is about Cardiff or Nigeria. Deyah’s brutally confessional style compels the listener to be invested in her thoughts, emotions and actions. She is a brilliant rapper and she showcases mesmerizing flows. Musically too, Deyah has created some intimate spaces.
“Planet X” brings more of the spacey atmospherics but this time with added funk to husky vocals, with the strummed guitar adding to the laid-back feel. There is a powerful meeting of music and voice. “Ciao”, the album’s fifth track, is a melancholic reflection on past mistakes. The captivating bassline and drums blend well with the dark lyrical content which covers drug abuse, past relationships and depression. Closing track “Liquor Lament” is undoubtedly a standout moment in which Deyah discusses her internal conflict regarding her increasingly distant relationship with God. She discusses temptation and sin whilst also questioning whether she’s lost her spirituality – and what she must do to regain it. The honesty here is so vivid, so powerfully expressed, it begins to feel as though Deyah is opposite you in a confessional booth. This is no accident; Care City is a spiritual album deeply concerned with faith and religion, and ‘Liquor Lament’ is its climax. The synth-infused R&B instrumentation blends well with the lyrical content, and is the perfect outro to a brilliantly brave and personal album.
Care City blends self-produced, laidback beats and contrastingly tough lyrics to create a genuine contender for album of the year, not just in Wales, but much further afield. This could – and should – spark a whole new appreciation for Welsh hip-hop, and it’s been a long time coming.
Care City by Deyah is available now from her own label, High Mileage, Low Life.
(This article has been amended to reflect a correction)