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Nothing Great About Britain Colin Gannon , May 28th, 2019 09:25

The debut album by always-grinning anarchist, Slowthai, traffics in everyday pain, squelchy grime, drill bassiness and woozy hip-hop, finds Colin Gannon

The Britain described by Northampton rapper Slowthai brutally and systematically crushes and demonises the poor, enriches the chumocratic ruling class, and airbrushes its wicked colonial past. Pretty much a fly-on-the-wall documentary, then.

“Hand on my heart, I swear I'm proud to be British,” the 24-year-old declares on the title track of his defiantly-titled debut, Nothing Great About Britain, a measured yet viciously ribald meditation on the contradictions at the heart of Britishness in 2019.

To pinpoint the exact moments Slowthai, known locally as Tyler Frampton, tangles with and unpacks such predicaments is unhelpful because the album is a swelling world of its own, teeming vividly with imagery of English life: union jacks hanging from bedroom windows, Eastenders’ Phil Mitchell, the neverending death-spiral of Brexit, Churchillian villains looting and hoarding wealth, as well as portraits of life growing up on a council estate in a small city. Autobiographical details are either hidden in dark corners or sprayed out in high-definition. Either way, his slang-encrusted writing packs a punch; whether he’s lampooning figures from the English Defence League to the Queen, or riffing on the emotional straitjacket of masculinity, Slowthai is the always-grinning anarchist. He raps words and banalities so dramatically that they transport you into the small town pub where people stand with eyes glued to a Premier League game.

Slowthai’s pliable voice is the guiding force on everything. Wielding a whiplash delivery, coupled with a brittle, cracking timbre – as if, at any moment, he could surrender to his knees and crumble – nothing he says ever sounds unconvincing. Even if they're tiresome, the Dizzee Rascal comparisons hold particular weight: Both are high-octane, ADHD spitters, depicting life on the fringes of English life with an impeccable clearness. Where Dizzee screwed his similarly pinched voice into spare, structural grime, Slowthai surfs across a smorgasbord of squelchy grime, drill bassiness and woozy hip-hop.

On twinkling highlight ‘Gorgeous’, his vocals gyrate atop stacked viscous keys and chopped vocals with irresistible conviction. The production of Kwes Darko is smudged all over, with contributions from producer Mura Masa on the Sleaford Mods-esque electro-punk of 'Doorman' and the punk band Slaves on 'Missing’ – a rare blip not helped by its chintzy beat and stiff hook, numbing to the point of inane. If you squint, you’ll hear nostalgic vibrations of ‘90s UK garage (‘Toaster’), trip-hop (‘Missing’) and early grime (‘Dead Leaves’).The sparse realism of The Streets’ Mike Skinner comes to mind during more self-serious moments, along with the edgy, warehouse brio of The Prodigy’s Keith Flint, an early idol of Frampton’s. The midsection of the album is a slower and more pensive detour, stunting some of the album's momentum but laying out some of Slowthai's most deeply felt lines. Feeling worthless on the closest thing resembling a love song, 'Crack', he laments on the lithe hook: “You're too sweet like grapefruits / Too sweet, bitter whilst I faced you.”

There are myriad pitfalls to an ostensibly political album, but Slowthai traffics in enough emotional honesty and genuinely mercurial songwriting to dodge the trap doors. Actually, the album scans more as kitchen-sink realism than socially conscious rap. On ‘Northampton's Child’, the heartfelt album closer, Slowthai earnestly details life traumas without the clichéd presence of sullen keys or slow, campfire guitars. The devastating death of his baby brother in 2001 burdens much of the emotional weight. And by telling the story from his mother’s perspective as much as his, hues of the auteurship of Shane Meadows emerge in some of the painfully normal, everyday imagery.

In the zany video for the snotty and gloriously pugilistic title track, as bittersweet a banger as you'll hear about patriotism, Slowthai stands outside a council estate brandishing a sword, wearing a printed white t-shirt displaying an eyeless photograph of Theresa May. With royal poise, he places the weapon on the shoulders of black-hooded souls from lost cities and forgotten towns. These ordinary town folk, he seems to suggest, are the real knights.