Grime forefather reintroduces himself to the world and carries with him the hopes of a genre.
As a young British male raised in southern England in the noughties, grime feels like the music of my generation. In the same way the ‘60s had folk and the ‘70s punk, this is our generation’s voice and sound. Ever since I heard the opening bars of “Ghetto Kyote”, I have been gripped. Of course, grime looked dead in the water after the move to the charts and electropop towards the end of the last decade. However, the resurgence since the turn of the decade has been enthralling for not only those fans who had given up on grime, but new fans as well, both in the UK and overseas.
Symbolic of this return was the 1Xtra Sixty Minutes Live series, in particular the session featuring Boy Better Know, Dizzee Rascal and Lethal B, amongst others. The passion, energy and comradeship on show from those originators of the genre was a joy to watch and seemed as much fun for them in the studio as it was for the listener. Here was a group of people who had all enjoyed commercial success to differing extents and moved away from the core sound of grime in different ways but with the same outcome, a stagnation of both commercial and artistic success. This “return” of grime also comes in the context of increasing presence in the US as Dizzee played Boy in the Corner in full in New York recently and Skepta and Drake have become well publicized pals.
It is with both excitement and trepidation therefore that Konichiwa arrives. Would the album build on this success or would it make wrong moves and push too far in the search for a return to the commercial “glories” of the past. The latter seemed far more unlikely after Skepta’s 2014 single “That's Not Me” rejected the Gucci wearing Skepta of the past, and the run of promo singles ahead of the album raised expectations even further. As the title indicates this is an introduction for some and a reintroduction for others. And what a reintroduction it is.
The title track is something of a statement of intent, calling out the politicians that Skepta clearly feels have left him and those around him disillusioned and isolated and for whom grime provides the most valuable outlet. Attacks on the institution do not stop there with “Crime Riddim”, a classic slice of grime production driven by an 8-bit melody, commenting on the racism and brutality of the police. Often grime’s potential for lyrical depth and social commentary is forgotten amidst attention drawing MC clashes on which the genre rose but this album shows that grime can be as diverse and varied as any other musical form. “Feds wanna strip a man, fuck that I ain't a Chippendale / Want to strip a male, put him in a prison cell, got me biting on my fingernails.” This isn’t a Ghostface crime masterpiece but a tale of arrest for fighting and asking the judge for leniency, and it seems very real tale, an insight into day to day life for those around Skepta. What follows the track is another insight into day to day life as we hear Skepta and his friends playing Call of Duty online. This track perfectly reflects the lack of pretense about the album and for that it is even more refreshing.
There are a number of previously released tracks included which are undeniably good, becoming modem classics of the genre and providing the basis for Skepta’s international expansion. This success was driven primarily by "Shutdown", a track with demonstrates the potential for grime and its most talented performers to expand beyond its current limits given the correct combination of lyricism and jarring beats. "Lyrics" is such a track and initially sounds like a flashback to 2003 and the heyday of grime for many but with a clear stamp of 2016 all over it. Feature artist Novelist proves there is great potential and talent in grime with the Lewisham native providing a great verse demonstrating aggression, control and power of both voice and content.
US critics have said Skepta tries too hard to fit words into bars and doesn’t flow with the beat. They consider Pharrell produced “Numbers” an example of a “better” flow and appreciation of the beat. And whilst "Numbers" is a good song and features impressive production from Pharrell who shows a real appreciation of the grime sound, it appears some in the US may continue to miss the point with the genre. Skepta has always demonstrated a great beat awareness, making space for himself amidst the jarring beats that he has worked with and the slightly off kilter flow is an aspect of grime that should be embraced.
There are a few misses. “Ladies Hit Squad” appears to be an attempt to cash in on US attention and yet the first few bars are so very British with Jammer doing what only he can. After that however it descends into a slice of US club rap that isn't bad but can’t hit the levels of recent hits such as Desiigner's “Panda”. Final track “Text Me Back” is another track with women at the centre, and whilst clearly no "Oopsie Daisy" (a symbol of the decline of the genre the first time round), the tempo drops and it is one of the weaker tracks on the album as Skepta reflects on his career and the impact on his relationships. Well-trodden territory, maybe, but at least it steers clear of schmaltz.
“Man” is a much better example of addressing the changes in lifestyle that success can bring as Skepta raps, “Man calling me family all of a sudden / My mum don’t know your mum, stop telling man you’re my cousin,” and again shows his technical flow and very British delivery. However most disappointing is “Detox”, which features all of Boy Better Know and was one song that promised much but doesn’t quite make the mark. The beat is a little drab and generic and the content dry.
These tracks should not take away from what is a strong album and potential watermark moment in both Skepta career and grime’s history. Boy Better Know’s headline slot at Wireless felt like a real “moment” for the genre and we may look back on this album and that show as the turning point where grime establishes itself as a power in the music industry on a global scale. That growth would need to bring growth and evolution but hopefully that would come organically rather than the forced changes seen previously. The spoken word ending to “Corn on the Curb” from Chip shows the importance of Skepta to grime, and this album will hopefully be central to the growth of the genre.