Over the course of Wiley’s three studio albums, the pre-eminent British grime MC didn’t evolve so much as exist, a superlative example of the genre he helped to create. He’s still intermittently labeled the “grandfather of grime” and it’s still apt. Although he’s still apparently officially retired, post-Playtime is Over, there’s more of Wiley to be dug up. Eskiboy: The Best of Tunnel Vision collects a selection of songs and freestyles from the various radio shows and studio sessions that the MC has participated in over the course of his career. It’s compiled by Logan Sama, an influential underground radio host on Kiss, the London radio channel, and he’s included, with some largesse, a hefty 46 tracks over two CDs.
The sheer volume of work here makes the compilation something more of a collector’s item than something to draw in new listeners, and unless you’re a serious fan of the genre, you might find yourself flagging towards the end of the two hour-plus set. The acerbic grime sound, while an ever effective foil for Wiley’s aggressive style, uses elements that become very familiar: the stringent, sawing syths and the pattering, characteristic rhythms. Through both discs, Wiley allows a rawer sound to emerge than on any of his studio albums. Generally, the songs don’t have the melodic hooks of the artist’s most well-known singles, but that’s to be expected. Most of the samples used on the album build atmosphere rather than grabbing for easy melody. You may recognise a sample from “Hater” by Various (off their The World is Gone album of last year) on “I’m a Sinner”, but apart from that the music largely relies on Wiley’s characteristically gritty production.
The fact that these tracks have been culled from a number of previous mixtapes offers one small measure of confusion. So it’s a bit odd to hear an “intro” track halfway through the first CD that says “welcome to tunnel vision volume 2”. Sama likely selecte the song for its stringent synth beat and dirty and compelling, if short, one verse of freestyle. But it does further contribute to the feeling that this release will be most appreciated by the most avid fans.
The freestyles, though, are uniformly impressive. “Friday the 13th Freestyle” builds on the Twilight Zone theme a series of building, interlocked phrases. “Crash Bandicoot Freestyle”—after the Playstation game—runs itself in circles while easily convincing us of the legitimacy of Wiley’s flow.
But on the slower tracks like “I’m on Point Fans”, and a series of boy-girl ballads on the second disc, things slip a little. The music loses some of its sting, and Wiley is too relaxed in his delivery to be really compelling. Even when he’s describing an argument he has with his girlfriend, the language doesn’t thrill in the same way it does when he’s describing the street, and his relation to it. But with so much material there are exceptions to this, too: “You & I”, with its confluent, slightly glitchy ambience, is excellent.
Whether it’s as Wiley or Eskiboy or any of his other sobriquets, Wiley is at his best when he’s sticking to the grime formula he helped to create. You come to appreciate small signifiers of expertise. It’s the flipped coda of the more relaxed “Checkmate”, the aggressive 4/4/ introduction to “Nightbus Dubplate”, and the slowing down of the vocal in the chorus of “A Lot to Learn”. Wiley’s confidence carries him through some memorable lines and memorable beats. Not that we need to be convinced, really. This, as they say, is the real thing.
// Notes from the Road
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