New Gen is the first compilation LP put together by the New Gen musical family, pulling together some of the most exciting and talented young musicians in the UK urban scene. Released on XL Recordings and supported by the likes of Red Bull, it carries the kind of backing UK hip-hop, R&B, and grime has so often longed for. However, the New Gen movement has been growing for some time; it was originally a playlist series curated by GRM Daily Editor and now XL Recordings A&R Caroline Simionescu–Marin that moved through radio show slots and parties to the creation of the New Gen Studio (in which this record was created). The record is laced with references to New Gen’s past, from the samples from its Radar Radio slot to the sound clips of a jungle party on “All Saints Road”. However, these influences take a back seat to the main attractions of the collection.
The biggest names to record for the album are largely at the front of the tracklist and deliver some of the best music. The likes of Avelino, Bonkaz, RAY BLK, and AJ Tracey feature on “Welcome to New Gen”, “Busy”, and “My Ways” to yield a breathless and enthralling opening five tracks. It is the perfect introduction to the roster for any newcomers and a treat for any longstanding fans. Many of these artists went from unknowns to breakthrough successes in the nine months it took to create and release New Gen, with a few even featuring on the BBC Sound of 2017 shortlist and in turn raising the profile of New Gen.
“Flexing” by Renz is the first real disappointment, with its generic notions of drinking, partying, and empty boasts proving too generic to captivate. “Top Floor” by Yxng Bane suffers a similar fate, as it fails to create a clear identity and lacks the British twist that defines much of the rest of the LP. Meanwhile, “Jackets” by Brixton crew 67 is undeniably British and may well be indecipherable at times for non-UK listeners. While their drill-influenced street rap has gathered reasonable support over the past year or so, it fails to stand out here.
There is, however, greater depth as the album reaches its end, courtesy of Kojey Radical’s gravelly bark on “Fuck Your Feelings” and Dotty’s emotionally raw and exposed “Thoughts”, a standout track and the perfect example of the talent New Gen can unearth. The contributors who have enjoyed the greatest chart success to date are WSTRN, who go for much the same formula that worked on “In2” and simultaneously show that they are more than comfortable towing the line between the two camps. While “Loose” is perfectly listenable and undeniably catchy, “Ring the Alarm” sees Tiggs and Avelino taking the WSTRN aesthetic and proving it doesn’t need to lead to watered down, crossover pop/rap.
It was always executive producer Renz and Caroline SM’s intention that the LP would be defined by its British identity. Bonkaz’s cadence and style are very similar to that of road rap legend Giggs: a slow and deceptively melodic drawl that has an understated menace. Steflon Don delivers dancehall patois and Jevon’s references to Channel 4’s Top Boy, student loans, and the Dungeon are grounded in British culture. New Gen is not unique, with the likes of High Focus and Low Life Records before it providing platforms for British hip-hop to flourish. However, New Gen can use the momentum it’s built over the past three years to take the profile of the genre and its emerging talents to another level.
That said, the record doesn’t live in isolation, nor should it. The influences of the US’s biggest stars are clear with nods Future and Chief Keef. It does pose the following question, though: When will the US take tips from its long considered “little brother” rather than vice versa? While grime has gained notoriety on the international market, this hasn’t necessarily translated into imitation in the same way it so often has in reverse.
Aside from the musical politics, New Genis a rich musical smorgasbord that laughs at the notion that grime is a one trick pony, incapable of sonic diversity without selling out. The thick bassline of TE dness’ “Rather Get Money” is a subtle step away from the minimalist sound grime is typically associated with. There are also the jazz and gospel touches of “Life Support” that brings to mind Chance the Rapper at his most experimental. There is the slightly obvious and well-trodden Nina Simone sample on Jevon’s “Man of the Hour”, but thankfully it doesn’t take away his fantastic, high tempo flow. Elsewhere, there are touches of new soul on “Busy”, plus dancehall and reggae, allowing the record to cover the broad range of musical styles and influences present throughout the New Gen community.
New Gen and XL Recordings have recently announced a showcase event at London’s fantastic Lovebox festival, proving that this album is only part of the growth of the movement. Whilst New Gen is far from a perfect album, it is packed with an effervescent energy that comes from working so many young talented artists. In turn, it provides space and freedom to be creative as RAY BLK, for example, makes her first step into rapping. As an album, it is best suited to the modern download culture, allowing people to handpick the elements that best suit their tastes and to remove the weaker middle phase of the record. Still, album closer “Say Those Words Again” — the track which inspired the elevation of the whole project to an official release rather than a mixtape — is the best example of when New Gen is at its strongest. It is musically creative and diverse, and it carries a clear identity that must act as a bright beacon for the future of British urban music.