Lead Review: Josh Gray On Skepta's Konnichiwa
, May 12th, 2016 10:20
With the release of Konnichiwa, Josh Gray considers whether Skepta's first new album in five years marks the beginning of Grime's recognition on the global stage or another footnote in a patchy transatlantic musical history
Nothing proves that you’ve attained a truly global profile like being on the receiving end of a twitter rant from recently outed racist Azealia Banks, a woman with opinions so cheap she can’t even be called a rent-a-gob. This week it appears it was grime’s turn to endure the virtual equivalent of having your trouser legs ravaged by a particularly pathetic terrier. God knows why the yapping of a rapper as irrelevant as Banks still equates to a modern litmus test of what is globally, for want of a better word, "trending" – but it seems that, for the time being at least, this constitutes a more accurate measurement tool than all of Spotify’s streaming figures. So pop the champagne and celebrate: the UK’s first substantial rap scene has hit the big time.
If there is one individual who could be heralded as the prophet of this new worldwide Church of Grime it has to be Joseph Junior Adenuga, aka Skepta. To anyone who fell into a coma circa 2004 and only recently woke up: I offer you my commiserations. I’m afraid Dizzee Rascal turned out to be more of a John the Baptist figure (if John the Baptist’s judgement had lapsed for long enough to stoop to the level of collaborating with Robbie Williams).
To critically appraise his new album is to take the pulse of an entire genre; a genre that’s tentative but unstoppable ascent has provided a Ranieri-worthy spectacle of underdog triumph for both diehard fans and casual observers alike. It’s been a long wait since 2012’s Blacklisted and there were those who understandably worried that the new album would miss the zeitgeist train. But, as Noisey’s recent Top Boy documentary evidenced, Skepta’s been spending the time laying the appropriate groundwork abroad to maximise the album’s potential. Plus it should come as no surprise that an ex-Meridian Boy is quite happy to keep to his own time.
As the title suggests, Konnichiwa is not merely an attempt to build bridges across the Atlantic for UK rappers. That’s exactly what a slew of young grime artists attempted to do in the late 00s and it was, frankly, embarrassing. Heads were turned by the prospect of overnight success and easy fame, encouraging boys who should have known better to follow Uncle Rascal’s example in casting themselves off the cliff of authenticity like a parade of Adidas-clad lemmings. Few had the integrity to stick to the slow grind when you could simply do a ‘Bonkers’ and pander to the sensibilities of the mainstream US market. Hell, even Skepta got involved back on 2008’s Microphone Champion. Do you hear ‘Sunglasses At Night’ getting dropped on Rinse FM these days? No you don’t.
Thankfully Skepta stopped himself just in time, swapping the cheesiness of ‘Hold On’ for the muscle of Blacklisted. Then, after a period of serious soul searching, he wheeled out the dusty drawing board and drafted in brother JME’s fresh set of eyes to craft ‘That’s Not Me’, a blistering attack on the American sheen and superficiality that had threatened to sink British rap before its journey had even begun. He could have continued to release quality, skank-worthy singles ad infinitum, but you don’t run an independent label for a decade without learning a few things about the basic tenets of the music industry. As Azealia ‘Still-Of-212-Fame’ Banks can attest, even in the digital age securing a worldwide tour requires a full-length album. Unless, of course, you want to start taking tweeting tips from Donald Trump.
A canny business sense has been just as important as lyrical dexterity in the rap industry for as long as the Sugahill wars have been raging. Don’t be naïve enough to think Konnichiwa is the sound of an artist just doing what they love and hoping the world gets on board, this is a concerted and self-aware effort to give the grime movement its own Straight Outta Compton; to take a sprawling regional scene and boil it down to its core components before serving it up to the outside world for maximum flavour. It’s a self-aware statement of global intent from the man who allegedly shut down both Paris and Central Park (though neither the Paris Prefecture nor the NYPD were available for comment to confirm the validity of these statements).
While his peers, Wiley and Devilman among them, tend to arrange their albums like their cars (‘bangers up front, hangers on in the back’), Skepta instead elects to split the album into three distinct acts. The first four tracks could be described as the ‘London set’, all brand new cuts peppered with garage textures and liberal doses of British slang designed to cement Skepta’s authenticity at home. Despite grime’s eagerness for worldwide acclaim, its proponents are understandably nervous about their champion forgetting his roots in the ends. Hearing Chip (who I imagine had the ‘-munk’ stripped from his name in punishment for his fraternisation with Chris Brown) encouraging Skepta to “make everyone else see everything that’s going on here” at the end of ‘Corn on the Curb’ effectively reassures the listener that Lessons Have Been Learned.
This preamble is absolutely essential in order for act two’s run of American collaborations to work. ‘It Ain’t Safe’ and ‘Ladies Hit Squad’ feature A$AP Mobbers Young Lord and Nast respectively while ‘Numbers’ boasts that hallmark combination of stellar production and an awful guest verse that only Pharrell can provide. This trio of tracks are still grimier than Lethal Bizzle’s gym socks, but Skepta uses them to cleverly toy around with perceptions of the transatlantic divide. ‘Ladies Hit Squad’ features all the trappings of trap (sorry) while keeping it at an arm’s length to compare the two most forward-looking subsects of UK and US rap. But, while both have a love for homophonic rhymes and patio-cooked beats, trap amounts to little more than the last vestiges of gas escaping the bloated, rotten corpse of mainstream American hip-hop. Its British counterpart, on the other hand, has never sounded more full of potential.
The big guns are reserved for Act Three. The triple threat of QOTSA-sampling ‘Man (Gang)’, globe-conquering ‘Shut Down’ and seminal ‘That’s Not Me’ form what is definitely the greatest triumvirate of singles in the short history of UK rap. Saving them for the back end of the album both excuses their venerability and encourages less familiar foreign listeners to explore beyond these tentpole tracks. The final flourishes of BBK nostalgia-fest ‘Detox’ and oddly pensive ‘Text Me Back’ are a nice bonus, but Skepta’s already finished. The gauntlet’s been thrown down, the die cast. Things now go one of two ways: either this album becomes an interesting but irrelevant footnote in the annals of world rap, or it’s hailed as the harbinger of Global Grime. There is no third way.
Skepta doesn’t stand alone in his well-targeted campaign for world domination. Stormzy’s been stalking the streets of Tokyo (which, true to the city’s unpredictable musical style, hosts the second largest grime scene in the world), Canadian megastar Drake infinitely bolstered Boy Better Know’s international profile when they ‘signed’ him back in February and the penitent Mr Rascal has returned to performing Boy In Da Corner to enraptured New York audiences primed for a few lessons in the short but fascinating history of garage’s greatest legacy. Grime may be poised ready to sally forth out of its largely self-built walls and conquer hearts and minds the world over, but its fate rests firmly in the hands of its head bannerman. This is his warcry.