- Hyperdub's resident court jester and former Rinse FM breakfast show host Scratcha DVA has always been a little bit silly, and Pretty Ugly is an apt name for his debut album. Leon Smart's music has often been a contradiction. He could go from the nastiest grime ("Bullet A Go Fly") to soulful UK Funky, his tracks steeped in the paradoxical complexity of urban life. His bangers are loaded with zany, colourful synths and odd sound effects ("New World Order"), and even something like "Just Vybe"—which appears here—was a parched rattler ("Natty") before Fatima spilled her brand of soulful vocals all over it.
In fact, Pretty Ugly has sun and rainbows pouring out from all ends no matter which way you look at it, a light and breezy album perfect for springtime. Smart's music has long been about the dichotomies of London urban lifestyles and music, but the vision he lays out here is one that feels ineffably cheery, what Rinse FM might sound like if it were suddenly converted to a mainstream pop station (read: more Katy B). That's in part because over half of the tracks feature full vocals, an attribute bound to be a point of contention for fans of older Scratcha. The vocals are a mixed bag: Muhsinah fails to convey the power needed for the emotional trauma of "33rd Degree," and Zaki Ibrahim's turn on "Fire Fly" is awkward, with a chorus basically pasted on from another song; in both cases we have gold-standard DVA beats weighed down by subpar vocalists.
Lucky for him, the vocals work most of the time, getting by on smart pairings (the whistling synth on the wonky "Madness" is a perfect match for Vikter Duplaix's crooning) or the sheer personality of DVA's music. How could you not love the short, bitter "Why U Do," with its snares that feel like insistent jabs to the solar plexus and a lyric like "Oh my gosh/Is this really real?/He's been seeing a man/Don't know how to feel?" Smart proves he does subtlety just as well as boisterous banging, with the slow-burner "Eye Know" smouldering with 8-bit flames and the psychedelic "Pretty Ugly" throwing a Bjork-like vocal from Cornelia on top of a nausea-inducing see-saw of a beat, all queasy synths and pendulum swings.
There's an uncanny level of detail in these productions: his tracks have always sounded huge, but they've rarely been this intricate at the same time. Every drum hit snaps with unparalleled clarity, every synth hums and buzzes like it's sitting right in front of you. "Polyphonic Dreams" comes early in the album and dazzles with its fluid synths that sound like they're composed of a million brilliant colours compressed into one concentrated beam of melody, while "Bare Fuzz" and "The Big 5ive" pack all the sub heft and muscle that you could ask for. Never a stranger to the big and obvious side of things, Smart ends the album with a pomp Nintendo-church-organ on "Where I Belong," sounding more like a funeral than a dance party, and it's hard not to crack a smile at how ridiculous it all sounds.
There's a lot to be said about how Pretty Ugly takes the ugliest tropes of UK dance music and flips them inside out without losing what makes them so physically powerful in the first place—but beyond all that pseudo-academia you've just got yourself a surprisingly light-hearted and easy album. That means sometimes it feels flimsy, but as far as pop/dance crossover goes, Pretty Ugly knows what it's doing.
01. Reach The Sun
02. Just Vybe feat. Fatima
03. Polyphonic Dreams
04. Pretty Ugly feat. Cornelia
05. Bare Fuzz
06. Madness feat. Vikter Duplaix
07. Fire Fly feat. Zaki Ibrahim
08. Why You Do feat. AL
09. The Big Five
10. Eye Know feat. Natalie Maddix
11. 33rd Degree feat. Muhsinah
12. Where I Belong