It’s hard to think of words more appropriate than “I’m made of steel” to be the very first line Andrea Martin sings on this album. After all, few contemporary artists (Alex Turner and co. excepted) are more heavily associated with the steel city, Sheffield, than Toddla T. It perhaps comes a slight surprise, therefore, that the opening track ‘BlackJack21’ actually closer resembles a Frankie Knuckles-esque, disco-inspired house track than anything from the UK’s underground. This, however, is not something that persists over the course of the album, where reggae, UK funky, dubstep and grime all have a role to play.
Nonetheless, the earliest songs – and in fact the album as a whole – take on a more soulful and understated tone than you might expect from a man most readily associated with boundless enthusiasm and carnival antics. This soul comes in no small part due to Andrea Martin’s ever-present vocals, the experienced singer doing a good job of tying together a series of stylistically varied tracks that could otherwise run the risk of being slightly muddled or unconnected.
And while Andrea Martin is put to use liberally, a strength of the album also comes in its short-but-sweet features from various guests. CASisDEAD’s input on second track ‘Won’t Admit It’s Love’ is reminiscent of early Roots Manuva; fitting for a man who is quietly but definitively etching his name into the annals of British rap as one of the country’s most original and interesting figures.
Elsewhere, Stefflon Don is on hand to show why she’s being talked about as one of the most exciting MCs out there, while Toddla’s go-to man and fellow Sheffielder Coco’s flow is as delightfully crisp and clean as ever on title track ‘Foreign Light’, the production of which is unmistakably inspired by Bristol dubstep pioneer Joker.
In all honesty, the album didn’t entirely hit home on the first couple of plays – and while this changed with repeat listens, to some it might be the difference between it being an enjoyable collection of tracks and a piece of work worthy of revisiting. For instance, the 16-bar contribution from Wiley over Eskibeat interlude ‘Tribute’ initially comes across as a slightly shoe-horned in nod to the Godfather, a man Toddla has obvious and understandable respect for, and whose input he perhaps didn’t want to waste.
But viewed in context, from the beginning of ‘Foundation’ and the quote from Addis Pablo – “it seems like the home base has moved to England somehow, the support base has always been here but the root and foundation is in Jamaica” – its inclusion becomes increasingly understandable.
As the album moves from vintage organ and melodica sounds on ‘Foundation’ – fitting given it was Pablo’s father Augustus that popularised the melodica in reggae – to modern recordings from Notting Hill Carnival on the aforementioned ‘Tribute’, the evolution and impact of reggae on the UK underground is portrayed, an evolution that has led us to the fruitful and authentically British genre over which Wiley can claim guardianship.
Just about creeping over the 30 minute mark across the course of ten tracks (two of which only last 1min 55 combined), the album might leave some listeners feeling like there could have been more to give. But frankly its hard to complain about what is included, with every track offering something new and interesting. And while ‘Foreign Light’ may not be a record that will blow you away on first listen, that isn’t what is being aimed for. Instead it’s a pleasingly considered and well-crafted project from a man who’s contribution to the UK music scene should not be understated. A man who has proved himself yet again to be a talented and versatile producer with obvious respect for the music that has got him to where he is today.
Words: James Kilpin
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