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Full Clip: October and November’s Hip Hop Reviewed
Tara Joshi , November 20th, 2017 09:24

Is the rise of Dave emblematic of a new golden age for British rap? Tara Joshi considers the growth of the scene in the past year, plus reviews of October and November’s releases.

Still from video for Dave’s ‘Question Time’, directed by Nathan James Tettey.

Before we get to this month’s column proper: the death of Lil Peep has rightly given the world a sinking feeling. Twenty-one is no age, and I can only imagine how his huge, devoted fanbase are feeling. Emma Garland’s tribute over on Noisey and Ben Beaumont-Thomas’ consideration of the opioid crisis and the glorification of prescription drug culture in US rap in The Guardian are well-written pieces to read in the aftermath. The fact that Lil Uzi Vert is now attempting sobriety means that the whole awful situation might at least be a wake-up call for some. Meanwhile, Peep’s music means so much to so many people, it seems unlikely we’ve seen anywhere near the end of sad and beautiful Soundcloud rap.

And now to the column.

Earlier this year British rap got rinsed by a lot of North American hip hop fans when Giggs featured on Drake’s More Life, his bars about Batman becoming the subject of sniggering mockery. But actually, I’d say rap in the UK has excelled in an unprecedented way in 2017. I’ve written before about how British rap encompasses many different genres (in my Fekky review here, for example), but looking back at the past year, I’m struck how healthy the scene is right now. Nicki Minaj gave Ms Banks a co-sign, and releases from Avelino, 808ink, slowthai, Krept & Konan, Not3s, Stefflon Don, Nadia Rose and Denzel Himself have all been fantastic. Indeed, Giggs’ Wamp 2 Dem proved that, contrary to post-More Life myth, he’s got great lyrical prowess (and that gruff voice is something else, too).

The recent launch of Trench Mag is indicative of a group taking control of the narrative, telling the stories from the inside and embracing Britain’s exciting scene, giving it a platform as it continues to flourish. Yemi Abiade talking about alternative British rap, for example, is a beautiful insight into just what a burgeoning time we’re in for.

Particularly impressive from the current UK scene is Dave. The 19 year old from Streatham has always shown a proclivity for clever lyrics, but last month’s ‘Question Time’ was truly something else. While the States had Eminem’s clunky call-out of Trump (more on that below), Dave went in on politics in an astounding way.

Over the course of the seven-minute track he worries about the NHS, blasts the arms trade deal with Saudi Arabia, calls out Theresa May, David Cameron and Trump, and questions the reality of Jeremy Corbyn, perfectly capturing youthful political disillusion and distrust post-EU referendum and post-Grenfell. It’s delivered with a seething and searing passion, interrogating current affairs with a startling, unfaltering flow. This is easily one of the best songs of the year.

Dave - Game Over EP

Then, this month, the rising artist dropped the fantastic Game Over EP, and cemented himself at the forefront of the rap game. The EP bangs with the low-key afro-bashment sounds du jour on some tracks and swaggering bars, but the standouts are when he goes long: the poetry of him exploring a past relationship against the backdrop of his mounting fame on ‘How I Met My Ex’ is perfect and quietly moving. It’s a really exciting, prosperous time for British rap, and Dave looks set to be the poster-boy for this golden age.

Kamaiyah - Before I Wake

A Good Night In The Ghetto - Kamaiyah’s debut mixtape - was one of the best hip hop releases of 2016, and so there was understandably a lot of hype surrounding the MC. This hype began to disintegrate into impatience and sadness as her debut album was delayed due to sampling issues, and in her personal life she lost her brother to cancer. So while she dropped this surprise tape, Before I Wake, to keep fans’ appetites whetted, she’s lyrically more downbeat than before, and more frustrated – something that stands out especially as the production (executively overseen by Link Up) retains its trademark glossy breeziness. She’s “cold as hell”, and unimpressed by people pretending to be her friend – “Ain’t nobody standing in my way,” she says on ‘The Wave’, trying to reassert herself after such huge knocks to her confidence. Tracks like TLC-sampling ‘Leave Em’ show that she doesn’t need to worry – Kamaiyah’s still one of the most interesting new MCs going.

Stefflon Don ft Skepta - ‘Dingaling’ (54 London Ltd.)

It was evident from her Real Ting tape that brash London MC Stefflon Don enjoyed the cartoony side of things, but sampling the talent show kid from The Simpsons on a loop on a track with a Skepta feature is truly next-level. Likely to rub a lot of people the wrong way, at first it’s overwhelmingly abrasive and grating and you kind of have to wonder if she’s trolling – but with each listen, weirdly, it starts to bang while simultaneously becoming hilarious. The earworm sample and the nonchalant way she spits all just adds to that “give no fucks” aura she’s honed, and it’s oddly uplifting.

Jaden Smith - Syre (MSFTS Music)

Jaden, the son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, has often come off as not far-removed from that Simpsons parody of Yoko Ono (you can imagine him going to a bar and ordering a single plum, floating in perfume, served in a man's hat), but beyond past pretentiousness, both he and his sister Willow have proven a certain artistic merit. This is his debut album, and it sprawls with impressive, confident prog theatricality, flitting between mellow introspection contemplating relationships - both romantic, and with his parents - and shouty rock bravado, likening himself to Hendrix and Jagger, before moments of quiet folktronica and ambient chimes. The best tracks are produced by Norway’s Lido, perhaps mainly known for work with Halsey and Chance. It’s an ambitious debut, showing real breadth in what he can do - one vibe never lasts too long before he switches up to something entirely different (A$AP Rocky-featuring ‘Breakfast’ is the perfect example of this). The album tells the story of Syre (one of Jaden’s middle names), and his aim seems to be to “save rap music”, placing himself as disinterested in YSL and drinking lean. It would be easy to dismiss Jaden as a bit wanky - and there are definitely times where he goes on a bit here - but this is largely a genuinely impressive record.

Sampa The Great - Birds And The Bee9 (Big Dada)

There’s a real gentle warmth to this latest tape from Zambia-born, Botswana-raised, Australia-based Sampa The Great, whose vocal work bridges the crossover between singing, spoken-word poetry and rap. It puts her in the Lauryn Hill, Akua Naru, Noname end of the hip hop-meets-R&B spectrum, all proud and soulful. Over smooth production with touches of brass and gentle percussion, her sweet sing-song flow talks ideas of beauty (‘Protect Your Queen’) and discusses blackness, femininity and politics (“No, I’m not your voice, I just want to be equal”, she says pointedly on ‘Black Girl Magik’). Though it can feel a bit same-y after a while, it’s certainly a delicious sound to sink into.

Talib Kweli - Radio Silence (Javotti Media)

One of Brooklyn’s finest returns with a celebratory album of rich, classic hip hop sounds that also embraces the present – yes, there’s an appearance from pianist Robert Glasper, but there’s also the swirling electronic production from Kaytranada; there’s a feature from an old school name like Rick Ross, but there’s also a fiery guest spot from Waka Flocka Flame (on one of several standouts, ‘Chips’); there’s smooth, quietly powerful soul from Bilal on the beautiful closing track, but there’s also breathy indie intonations from Amber Coffman. Overall this is a joyful consideration of the journey Kweli has been on which, at its best, gets as political as we’ve come to expect from him – “We have nothing to lose but our chains,” a crowd chants in the recording of a rally that precedes ‘All Of Us’, quoting Assata Shakur. It’s this sense of determination that shines through the album, and by the time you reach the end you get a real sense of positivity.

Nadia Rose - ‘Big Woman’ (Relentless)

The strings on this make it sound like an off-cut Mis-Teeq backing track (this is a good thing), but ‘Big Woman’ get even more sensual than ‘One Night Stand’ managed. Indeed, rising London MC Nadia Rose is “wishing that you'd get it wetter than a wishing well” and asking to be touched like she’s braille. Currently nominated for best female act at this year’s Mobos, she doesn’t leave you guessing why: this is sexy, playful, and full of boisterous fierceness.

Eminem ft Beyoncé - ‘Walk On Water’ (Aftermath)

If we’re being honest, Eminem has always been a little bit corny: dark as hell, a lot of the time, with a lot of demons in his closet and (at his best) a sublimely deft flow and caustic lines – but still, oddly juvenile. While the sentiment of him renouncing any fans who are also Trump supporters at the BET hip hop awards earlier this year was admirable, it sounded an awful lot like clunky open-mic slam poetry. Now we have this lead single for the forthcoming Revival album, which features melismatic gospel intonations from Beyoncé and deals heavy-handedly with the notion of whether or not Eminem is washed up. It’s pretty on-the-nose and, yes, it’s pretty corny - not least when he ends the track yelling “Bitch, I wrote ‘Stan’!” I still think ‘Stan’ is one of the greatest rap stories ever, but this track just feels a bit sad.

Honourable mention:

21 Savage, Offset, Metro Boomin - Without Warning (Slaughter Gang)

Three of rap’s biggest names collaborated for a menacing Halloween-time special.