“This is the hardest thing, y’know,” Ben Bailey Smith tells the small crowd in front of him at The Wardrobe. “Trying to convince people I was born into this. Not Leeds”, he clarifies quickly to laughs, “but hip-hop.”
Rapper Doc Brown is best known these days for his storied career in comedy and television, from support slots with Ricky Gervais to a recurring key role on Law and Order: UK. He’s been away from his tunes for a while; back in the game for the first time proper in a decade, he delivers a set low on musical heterogeneity but high on winning charm.
With a new album imminent, produced by DJ The Last Skeptik – whom assumes the role of hype man on stage – Smith leans heavily on the forthcoming record Stemma throughout. His rhymes tackle the mundane and the profane with a dry wit and lethargic anger; FFS lyrically tackles such touchy subjects as missing a courier delivery whilst the spoken-word poem Silent Screams is a fiery, explicit rant against anti-feminist trolling.
However, despite his sharp tongue, his cuts often feel like a retread, their aural palate trapped somewhere between the massed choral voices and squelchy beats of noughties hip-hop, such as on Hydroplaning and Embarrassment. His flow is fantastic; but it rarely matches the tempo beneath.
It is telling that the Mad World-sampling Donnie’s Lament, one of Smith’s earliest singles, is a high point, owing to the marked melodic difference. Elsewhere though, his superb comic sensibility is required to keep proceedings ticking over. “I played with David Brent and Foregone Conclusion in Cardiff and my own show there the night after,” he observes in a warm anecdote halfway through. “The first night, I got to play to 5,000 people. My night, I got to play to about five.”
Despite the atomity of his audience, he clearly relishes the intimacy; and when he closes with the swirling psych-piano beats of latest single Corruptible, he shows that he still can create eye-catching hooks too. Doc Brown is back for business; a showman whose earnest sincerity helps smooth over the scattered cracks in his music.