There Can Only Be One: Thoughts On The Mercury Prize Winner

So, Speech Debelle eh? Certainly the not the most likely candidate to win this year’s Mercury Prize, but if you take a look at the nominees then she ticks the right boxes. Perhaps, the judges felt it was time for a more left-field winner, so it couldn’t be someone too popular (Kasabian, Florence & The Machine, La Roux) or too critically acclaimed (The Horrors, Friendly Fires, Glasvegas). If you eliminate the more ‘obvious’ choices, everything fits into place. Speech is the only relatively unknown artist who could be picked without seeming wilfully obscure, the only ‘token’ artist who could be picked without it seeming false – and she still fits conveniently into one of the year’s prevailing trends (i.e. female artists are big news right now).

Of course, to say all that is to take a rather cynical view and ignore her album entirely – and it’s the album that’s supposed to matter, after all. To be fair to her, on those terms she’s a deserving winner – of all the records that I hadn’t listened to before the nominations, hers was one of the most impressive, to my ears at least. Lyrically and instrumentally, she’s doing something a little different from clichéd hip-hop, and that’s worthy of praise. There’s also the fact that she probably needs the £20,000 prize more than many of her compatriots – not exactly the best justification, admittedly, but it does make some sense for the prize to go to one of the lesser-known artists.

The question is, where will she go from here? Talking to Lauren Laverne shortly after receiving her award, she cited Ms. Dynamite’s Mercury Prize win in 2002 as a key motivator – let’s just hope Speech doesn’t follow in the footsteps of her inspiration and fade into obscurity. Right now, her future is firmly in her own hands – with the money and exposure from the prize, she has every opportunity to go on to bigger things. For her sake, I hope she pulls it off… lest we end up looking back at 2009’s Mercury Prize and wondering, “what were they thinking?”


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