My 15 (+1) Favorite Songs of 2009: 13. Speech Debelle, “The Key” (2009).

13. Speech Debelle, “The Key” (2009).
Official website.
– From the album Speech Therapy.

This was my summer anthem of 2009, via a (still!) free mp3 from Amazon back in June. To be frank, it took a while for me to figure out the Cockney lyrics the lyrics websites to publish their iffy transcriptions, and even then I had to google the definition of the word “armshouse”. All I could really go on was the unassailable argument of a chorus “Overstanding is the key, key” — a mantra I associated in my head, somehow, with “What did you want to see / What did you want to be when you grew up?” from Atlas Sound’s “Walkabout”.

It’s a lot easier to enumerate what Speech Debelle isn’t about, which is basically the usual material obsessions of most hip-hop nowadays; there’s a little bragging on “The Key”, but still she addresses her absent listener, “truthfully you bright like me / The only real difference is you slyer than me.” One realizes quickly that Speech Therapy was, indeed, speech therapy; her lyrics sometimes read like slightly rambling journal entries written at the breakfast table, or confessional letters never sent, and it’s all part of the song’s utter charm:

I’m getting older now starting to make sense of it,
Seeing the signs, reading minds like hypnotist,
Understand the figures like arithmetics and my guess is,
People are bad, man,
Insecurity breeds hate it’s a fact find,
In fact I’m sure it’s uncurable,
Some people positive while some people are negative
and totally oblivious to the harm they cause

Alas, the backlash against her began immediately after she won the Mercury Prize later this year — inevitably, by people whose favorite bands didn’t win — and disappointing record sales and apparently poorly attended concerts didn’t help.

But listen to the song! A joyful declaration of independence on a bed of clarinets and oboes, like it emerged from a Tribe Called Quest album circa 1991. The sound of swinging South London.


The rest of the list so far:

14. ComaR, “I Want You D.A.N.C.E.” (2008)
15. Michael Jackson, “Happy” (1973)
16. Wonder Girls, “Nobody” (2008)

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