Image Credit: NRK P3
Almost a decade ago UK hip hop was in a rut. After an explosion of seminal albums in the early 2000s from artists like Dizzee Rascal and The Streets, UK hip hop experienced a drastic slump in popularity. Whilst a select few British artists managed to stay afloat, many struggled to compete with overwhelming appetite for their American counterparts and for many years grime, garage and UK rap remained in the shadows.
I’m happy to report that things have changed.
In 2019 British hip hop is flourishing, experimenting and making huge waves in the music industry. With the recent release of Skepta’s latest long-awaited project Ignorance Is Bliss, I thought it would be worth casting an eye over the dense and varied roster of homegrown hip hop that have defined 2019.
The year kicked off to a good start with projects from Streatham rapper Dave and MC Little Simz. Dave’s debut Psychodrama was a perfectly executed grime album that blended dark humour, dense narratives and a bleak social conscious with the rappers distinct personality and style. Exploring issues from mental illness and masculinity to domestic violence and institutionalised racism, the 21 year old rapper delivers effortlessly slick and complex bars over tight and booming production and twinkling piano loops.
Little Simz’s project Grey Area was equally stunning. With a grimy, 90s influenced sound and brilliantly playful delivery, Simz’s dense wordplay and catchy hooks skip perfectly across kinetic drum beats, lush instrumentals and thudding 808s like skimming stones across a lake. After years of being an underappreciated but gifted lyricist, Grey Area is Little Simz finding her voice - a cohesive and groundbreaking album packed with personality, skill and creativity.
It’s also been a great year for rapper Octavian, a prominent feature on my list of ‘Ones To Watch’ as well as the BBC’s Sound Of 2019 project. With collaborations from huge acts such as Skepta, Octavian is producing some of the years most addictive trap-infused grime bangers.
AJ Tracey’s self titled project is another example of grime thriving in 2019. Blending traditional grime with garage, dancehall and trap, Tracey brings his trademark style and tone to one of the most exciting grime albums of the year, taking the feel and tone of mid-noughties grime and garage and re-purposes it into something truly original.
Perhaps my favourite album of the year (from any genre), Northampton rapper Slowthai’s debut Nothing Great About Britain is equal parts hip hop, grime and punk. It’s an electrifying and shocking debut, packed with anarchic personality and bleak humour, it’s a hilarious catharsis of anti-establishment fury. Instrumentals are dense and claustrophobic, vocal delivery is venomous and bitter, topics are controversial and subversive. He even takes a break from angrily shouting about Boris Johnson and the EDL to call the Queen a word so rude that I’m probably not allowed to print it (let’s just say it rhymes with ‘hunt’).
Skepta has undergone quite the transformation over the past few years - from your drug dealer’s favourite MC to a Kuda Tuesday staple. I’d even attribute the renewed love for grime to the galvanising explosion of his previous project. His latest album might not have the fresh and unique bite of 2016’s Konnichiwa but it still packs in banger after banger, blending US influenced trap beats with classic grime production. Punchlines are wry and cynical, delivery is slick and energetic and a varied cohort of collaborators keep the tracklist fresh. It might not meet the high bar he set with Konnichiwa but it’s an enjoyably crafted album that successfully blends UK style with US influences.
Loyle Carner, an outlier from the other mentions, has also had a brilliant year. The release of his second album Not Waving But Drowning marked a leap forward for the South London rapper, being critically adored and commercially successful. Blending influences from hip hop, indie and pop, Carner’s unique, personal and soulful style layers gorgeous instrumentals with an abundance of wit and charm.
2019 has been a landmark year for UK rap, with the release of a number of groundbreaking projects from some of the most interesting and exciting names in the industry. While Slowthai might gleefully claim “there’s nothing great about Britain” I can report that there is - the music.