Speech Debelle was the surprise winner last night of the 2009 Barclaycard Mercury Prize for the best British album of the year.
Rap artist Debelle, 26, won with her debut Speech Therapy, which was released in June. She beat more highly tipped entries by Florence and the Machine and Kasabian. With this pick, the Mercury judges continued their habit of making unexpected decisions, also bypassing acclaimed records by La Roux, Glasvegas, Friendly Fires and Bat for Lashes.
“I feel so good, it feels better than I imagined,” Debelle, from south London, told reporters after her victory. “Hopefully people will hear this album and realize they don’t have to make music that sounds the same: They can make music that sounds good.”
The Mercury Prize, awarded annually since 1992, is now sponsored by Barclaycard, which has taken over from the Nationwide Building Society. The prize has often been given to new or non-commercial acts, and pits different genres against one another, ranging from folk and jazz to hard rock. The winner receives a prize of US$33,000, although the boost from album sales can be worth much more.
The award, judged by critics and industry figures, focuses on the music — it doesn’t take into account sales, media exposure or live performances.
Among acts boosted by a Mercury Prize were rapper Dizzee Rascal (real name Dylan Mills), who won in 2003 for Boy in Da Corner, and Badly Drawn Boy (aka Damon Gough), the 2000 winner for The Hour of Bewilderbeast, both on the independent XL Recordings label.
Last year’s winner was Elbow’s The Seldom Seen Kid (Fiction Records) — the sales of which surged sevenfold on the news. Klaxons won in 2007 with Myths of the Near Future (Polydor).
Previous hit albums that were nominated for the Mercury Prize but failed to win include Robbie Williams’s Life Thru a Lens in 1998, when the award went to Bring It On by Gomez, and OK Computer by Radiohead in 1997, beaten by Roni Size/Reprazent’s New Forms.
“Speech Debelle can look forward to a big surge in interest, and the sales that come with that,” Martin Talbot, the Official Charts Company managing director, said in an e-mailed release. “It is one of the least established albums in the history of the Mercurys and an album which still has great potential.”
Speech Therapy, on the Big Dada label, has sold fewer than 3,000 copies since its release, half of which came since it was shortlisted seven weeks ago. Debelle has never reached the Official Singles or Albums charts, although this is set to change over the coming weeks, Talbot said.
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