IF YOU'RE a rapper traveling to Houston and Bun B picks you up from the airport, you're doing something right as an MC. In Dizzee Rascal's recent video for "Where Da G's," off his third album "Maths & English," the 22-year-old London rapper rolls with Bun B through a blighted Houston block, trading jabs at fake thugs and purchasing sunglasses equipped with infrared "gangstavision."
But the video also symbolizes his lengthy and tumultuous career in music. Rascal (real name Dylan Mills) -- who plays the El Rey tonight -- is a hugely ambitious MC who, in the U.S. at least, remains a perpetual outsider.
"I don't think they had ever met anybody from England," Rascal says of the Houstonian extras in the video. "Half the time I didn't think they understood a word I was saying, but I connected with them."
Rascal's squelching beats and wild patois are sometimes difficult to sort. But his albums capture the many-sided emotional realities of street life, while also promising on one track that "there's a world outside the ghetto, and I want you to see it."
His 2003 debut "Boy in Da Corner" was heralded as the high point of a new genre -- an English strain of panicked, dub-influenced rap known as "grime." But even as he won Britain's Mercury Prize for his first album (which sported the hilarious and ghastly teen-pregnancy lament "I Luv U"), he was eyeing foreign rap markets and different production styles, but still treading lightly after a knife attack that year ("Maths & English" opens with a drum sample of sharpening blades).
The single "Sirens" begins harrowingly, with "12 black boots on my bedroom floor" coming to arrest the narrator over a "99 Problems"-style guitar riff. But Rascal reveals they had reason to: He beat and robbed a couple, and he ruefully predicts that "I break the law, I will never change." Rascal admits "Sirens" is autobiographical, but by admitting his complicity, Rascal explores the fear that drives violence.
"The song doesn't make me out to be a victim," Rascal says. "What I do comes from a more vulnerable place."
There's a riotous house influence on the lascivious single "Flex," and playful collaborations with Arctic Monkeys, Lily Allen and disco maven Matthew Herbert imply Rascal's vision beyond his laurels as Britain's best rapper. It's fitting that his most eccentric album would also be his most approachable. But as "Sirens" suggests, emotionally incisive art is inherently complicated.
"When my first album came out, I was an outsider then, and I still am," Rascal says. "I'm not Lil' Wayne just yet."
WHO: With El-P and Busdriver
WHERE: El Rey Theater, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.
WHEN: 8 tonight
INFO: (323) 936-6400