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Skepta, Chip & Young Adz
INSOMNIA James Butterworth , April 6th, 2020 08:54

A collaboration between Skepta, fellow Tottenham MC Chip plus Young Adz from D-Block Europe has a lot to recommend it, finds James Butterworth

It’s been more than fifteen years since Skepta burst onto the emerging grime scene through Tottenham’s Meridian Crew, and it’s fair to say his career has followed an upwards trajectory ever since. During the early-to-mid 00s he was one of the genre’s top dogs, releasing purist grime riddims like ‘Private Caller’ and ‘DTI’, guaranteed to get wheel ups at raves across the country. The formation of the crew Boy Better Know, alongside younger brother JME and grime’s godfather figure Wiley amongst others, saw his notoriety grow.

From 2008 onwards, like many grime MCs looking to reach beyond the confines of a genre forgotten by all but the more hardcore fans, Skepta started releasing music with a more radio-oriented, mainstream feel. This earned him some success; his 2011 album Doin’ It Again was his first to chart, reaching #19. However, some suggested he’d traded in street credibility for ‘bubblegum’ pop songs. He responded with 2012’s Blacklisted, an energising, inspired rap mixtape that put most of the criticism to bed. Since then he’s carried on in the hip-hop and grime vein, notably winning the Mercury Prize with 2016’s Konnichiwa, a vibrant album that drew from a range of influences and included modern classics ‘Shutdown’ and ‘That’s Not Me’.

After five studio albums and various other mixtapes, Skepta returns with Insomnia, a surprise collaboration with fellow Tottenham-born spitter Chip and Young Adz, who makes up one third of the trap collective D-Block Europe. It’s a combination nobody would have predicted, yet one that makes perfect sense. Chip’s career over the last decade has followed a similar path to Skepta’s, from going #1 with chart-friendly ‘Oopsy Daisy’ in 2009 to returning to grittier sounds with a succession of mixtapes and EPs in the 2010s.

Young Adz is a more recent star of UK music; D-Block Europe released three mixtapes last year, all of which reached top ten in the album charts. Where Chip and Skepta deliver hard verses and versatile flows, Young Adz completes songs with more melodic verses and a killer hook.

With an all-star line up, expectations for Insomnia will be high. In a sense it could be seen as the UK’s answer to Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne, and promoters on social media have gone as far as to bill Insomnia as “the groundbreaking album”.

Undoubtedly, Insomnia has great moments. ‘Golden Brown’, the second track, is the best on the album, bass guitar riffs and choral tones providing the backdrop to a rare but enjoyable phenomenon – Skepta singing on the chorus. “Yeah the boys are back in town, yeah the boys are back in town”, he sings, somewhat surprisingly paying homage to the timeless Thin Lizzy song. It’s feel-good, breezy and instantly memorable. The following track, ‘Waze’, sees Young Adz on chorus duty, but it’s Chip who steals the show, bringing the braggadocio as he raps, “if three man link up and try do an album it’s not gonna sound like this… step in the ring and get shown the ropes”. It’s the sound of three artists who know they’re at the peak of their careers, loud, proud and unapologetic.

Elsewhere, ‘St Tropez’ uses a sample of M.I.A.’s ‘Paper Planes’ over a swaying, rhythmic bassline. There’s a definite summer feel across Insomnia, perhaps wasted now all parties are cancelled and we’re told to stay indoors, but nonetheless welcome after months of winter gloom.

It’s not an album without flaws. Misogyny rears its ugly head occasionally on this album, particularly in Young Adz’ lyrics. When he raps, “side bitch upset with me ‘cause I fucked her favourite friend” on ‘Demons’, it’s tired, clichéd and does nothing but detract from the song. He’s far better on ‘Traumatised’, where he opens up emotionally, singing, “I told bae to give me time, ten stacks on therapy because I’m traumatised”. Or when he switches into the strange, stuttering, almost yodelling flow he employs at times, a trademark that makes him instantly recognizable. Occasionally the production on the album lacks variety; there’s a lot of trap and drill beats. But Young Adz going back-to-back with Chip and Skepta on grime or garage was a missed opportunity.

That being said, Insomnia is generally solid, with more peaks than troughs. All things considered, it probably isn’t groundbreaking, and doesn’t feel as vital or captivating as Dave’s Psychodrama or Headie One’s Music X Road. But it’s a welcome addition to the artists’ respective back catalogues, especially for Young Adz, a high profile collaboration like this further cementing him as one of the top vocalists of the moment. And expect ‘Golden Brown’ to be the sound of whatever summer 2020 has in store for us. The album’s closing track, running for just over a minute, is ironically titled ‘Intro’, which might hint at a sequel. Here’s hoping any future releases from this trio build on the positives from Insomnia and ditch those elements that didn’t work.