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Slowthai’s Nothing Great About Britain tore the UK music scene apart.
The infectious flows of a brash young rapper spraying venom across rowdy, punk-influenced instrumentals with a nasty political edge perfectly captured the fury of Britain's disenfranchised youth. Rebellious acts of defiance defined slowthai in the wake that followed this fiery debut, culminating in the rapper brandishing the severed head of politician and reanimated belly button fluff Boris Johnson on stage at the Mercury Awards. This was only the start of his the rappers spiral into controversy, after he made a drunk and unruly appearance at the NME awards, making degrading comments towards host Katherine Ryan before hurling a bottle from the stage. Both parties have acknowledged that this was a poorly judged joke that went too far, but the point stands that what happened was crass and unacceptable and his career took a huge dent.
Going from the UK’s hottest new talent to cannon fodder for Twitter and the tabloids, slowthai had to rebuild. His follow-up album TYRON explores this idea, seeing the rapper wrestle with ideas of control, authority and reflection.
A sophomore album is always a challenge for artists, let alone ones recovering from controversy, but with the follow up to Nothing Great About Britain slowthai manages to deliver. Where his debut embraced the grimy and gritty aesthetics of UK rap and punk, TYRON presents a new set of ideas entirely. Sure, there are still those brilliantly nasty cuts like ‘CANCELLED’, flipping an eerie flute sample with blood-spattered bars and haunting production, but TYRON packs an equally emotive punch in its 14 track run.
Tracks like the more subdued ‘nhs’ and the gorgeous James Blake collaboration ‘feel away’ feel more contemplative, subtle and nuanced. There’s real emotional maturity in these tracks, a side to the rapper that was largely overlooked on his debut and that is refreshing to see take up such a large portion of this project. It would be nice to see this better developed, particularly in the lyrics which feel a bit scattergun at times, but it marks a real progression for slowthai and I’m excited to see where this takes him on future projects.
These tonal contrasts are reflected in the form of the album itself, a bipolar combination of discs that differ greatly in style and CAPITALIZATION.
The first of these sees slowthai tear through raucous instrumentals like a lyrical chainsaw. Venom and malice laced into every syllable, slicing brutally through the increasingly jagged beats Kwes Darko and Kelvin Krash throw at him. The opening track ‘45 SMOKE’ is pure UK rap gold, echoing calls of “bomboclaat dickhead” announcing the arrival of some bulletproof bars that bounce and ricochet off the clattering hi-hats and kicks, flows slashing and swinging like a mad man with a machete. ‘VEX’ delivers a similar gut-punch, Kwes Darko serving up a booming instrumental that feels like it might tear your speakers apart, flows slipping in and out of kinetic drums to the point of almost hypnotism. ‘DEAD’ continues this blistering momentum, with deliciously vicious lyrics and a rowdy beat.
‘PLAY WITH FIRE’ forms a turning point for the album, as the rapper reels in some of that venom, leading into the more subdued cuts that follow. ‘i tried’ flips an almost Madlib-esque joint, soulful and warm, a pitched vocal sample interlacing with slowthai’s effortless flows, propelling the track towards the more contemplative atmosphere of reflection that defines the latter half of the project.
It might sound like a sharp juxtaposition and in the hands of anyone else, these tonal acrobatics might fall flat, but it's these contrasts that set up the tensions at the heart of the album - exploring violence, anger and reflection but never quite seeming to find a point of acceptance. TYRON lacks the sense of finality I was expecting, and it would have been good to see the maturity of the aesthetics reflected more clearly in the lyrics, but at this point I’m nitpicking.
Collaborations also play a key role on TYRON. Where Nothing Great About Britain saw slowthai standing alongside grime legends such as Skepta and Jaykae, TYRON sees the rapper stretch out a hand across the Atlantic, bringing in titans of the rap genre A$AP Rocky and Denzel Curry as well as the pop sensibilities of Deb Never and Dominic Fike. These are some of the standout moments on the album, slowthai trading flows with a perfectly curated cast of collaborators, however, at times it feels as if slowthai is overshadowed and takes a back seat on tracks.
Deb Never provides a silky smooth vocal performance on ‘push’, accompanied by gently plucked guitars that compliment slowthai’s infectious flow and hooks in a way that we haven’t really seen before. ‘MAZZA’ is a different beast entirely, trap aesthetics providing the blueprint for thai and Rocky to really flex their flows and punchlines. The instrumental to ‘terms’ also showcases this US influence, taking Dominic Fike’s pure pop appeal and hooks, translating it into a track that jumps from indie to hip hop to pop with ease - swelling synths and clattering hi-hats forming the backbone of this trap-influenced joint.
It would be easy for slowthai to be lost amidst all the strong voices and brilliantly obnoxious beats, but he almost always dominates and defines the tracklist - once again staking his claim on the rap scene with a renewed sense of maturity and confidence.
TYRON might not pack the shock factor of Nothing Great About Britain, but its differences set it apart as a real progression for the artist. Sure, there could definitely be more done to address the mistakes of his past and truly cement his maturity but, just like the arrow embedded in slowthai’s eye on the cover, this sophomore project truly hits its mark.