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TYRON Rob Hakimian , February 12th, 2021 08:55

A new double album (albeit, a remarkably brief one) shows Northampton's slowthai getting personal, finds Rob Hakimian

Northampton rapper slowthai’s public persona is one of boisterous energy, slurring mayhem and unbridled outspokenness. It’s clear from the title on down that his second full-length, TYRON, is intended to display a more multi-faceted and deeper person than the one we see running around onstage in his boxers and gurning through cartoonish masks in his press shots. The record’s title is his given name, and despite it being a fairly short thirty-six minutes that people will listen to in one sitting on streaming services, it is presented as a ‘double album’, which is more of a conceptual choice than a format one. The first seven tracks have titles in ALL CAPS and are a display of the extroverted slowthai we’ve come to know, while the latter half’s titles are lowercase and are intended to give us some insight into the human behind the mask, Tyron Kaymone Frampton.

For many, the enduring image of slowthai may well be his villainous turn at last year’s NME Awards, where he made lurid comments and gestures to host Katherine Ryan, before jumping into the audience to try and square off with a spectator that had called him a misogynist – ultimately getting dragged out by security. Last year’s furious standalone single ‘ENEMY’ was his direct response to the fallout from that night, and although he’s managed to cruise through the media storm relatively unscathed he’s evidently still smarting from it. This is most clearly evidenced by TYRON’s second track ‘CANCELLED’, where he claims he can’t be cancelled as he’s got twenty awards and has played Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage. Leaving aside the fact that no amount of accolades have saved world-famous stars from being hauled into the dirt, it seems a bit misjudged to attempt a takedown of cancel culture when still walking on fairly thin ice – although bringing in UK hip hop’s lovable uncle Skepta to trade bars with him does make it more appealing.

‘CANCELLED’ is sandwiched between ‘45 SMOKE’ and the A$AP Rocky-featuring ‘MAZZA’. It’s a pulverising opening trio full of juddering bass and crisply-clicking beats akin to a lot of the mainstream hip hop that has emerged from the States in recent years. While slowthai certainly has the presence and technique to make this style work for him, rapping about gangster fantasies like holding stickups and wanting to “make the place look like a murder scene” aren’t what we cherish the rapper for. 

Fortunately, things improve significantly from there. ‘VEX’ is the first track that presents a more truthful, street-level sound. Here slowthai seems more in his element, popping off ad-libs and slipping between voices to present his erratic personality as he claims to have “been bad since I stepped out the womb.” ‘DEAD’ is again Ty in gangster mode, but because he’s rapping about watching football with his mates and going to war to protect his loved ones – and even slips in a Harry Potter reference – it feels like a much truer representation of the kind of council estate drama he’s embroiled in. 

Disc one concludes with ‘PLAY WITH FIRE’, which acts as a bridge to TYRON’s more reflective second half, as it finds him rapping over gunshots but admitting “I’m hypersensitive” and “I’m happy being the fucking flower boy”. It’s the first time he overtly shows vulnerability on TYRON, and it’s surprising how effective it is coming off the back of a string of bombastic boom bap tracks – but just goes to show that when the young man shows more of his true self, he has plenty of compelling qualities.

This mood permeates into the second half, which opens with ‘i tried’, a track that completely flips the script with a sugar-sweet intro and a soulful guitar-based beat that could have slipped off Outkast’s Aquemeni. slowthai matches it by slowing down his breakneck bars into something more approachable and contemplative. Even with admissions of suicidal tendencies and lines like “life got me in a headlock” and “if hell is meant for sinning heaven’s never been for me,” it never tips into self-pity. On the contrary, it only makes him seem more human – especially as he reveals some of his creature comforts when he references manuka honey and oolong tea in his metaphors. 

‘focus’ is a classic hip-hop rags-to-riches tale, but Ty approaches it from his roots rather than his current status, describing how he watched his “brothers” go to prison while he focused on making something of himself as he “tried to make it out the rubble”. ‘push’ is the inverse of this, as it finds him revisiting his old hood and friends in the wake of his success, relaying how they treat him differently now. He doesn’t come at it full of pride and braggadocio, but with a humble understanding of how difficult it is for them, which is beautifully aided by the acoustic balladry from Deb Never that underpins it. 

Such graciousness flows into TYRON’s final three tracks, which truly are the antithesis of the album’s opening trio. Most surprising is ‘feel away’, where Ty raps about romantic love in a way we’ve rarely heard him before. It helps that he’s got feathery production from Mount Kimbie and a typically rich hook from James Blake to make lines like “you looked low, I took you higher than a note from Mariah” pay off. 

Better still are the tracks where he doesn’t need any assistance to reveal his true self. ‘nhs’ is his unvarnished admission to bouts of depression, but relayed in a way to make the listener understand that there’s no shame in shortcomings, offering “try breathing, you might find freedom” – although he lets himself down a bit by following that up with the pretty stupid “instead of squeezing up your buttocks trying to hold your shit in.” 

No such stumbles occur on TYRON’s closer ‘adhd’, where a skeletal beat aids him as he goes a step further in scabrous self-assessment, “Same routine, drink ‘til I can't speak / Slave to the progress / Abscess ‘cause I ain’t got control yet / I’m tryna fly but my wings feel broken.” It’s a slippery slope down to the point where he’s contemplating ending his life, and we get a clip of him leaving a heartfelt voicemail to someone he misses. Just when it seems to be lights out on Tyron, he comes firing back with one final volley of the impassioned slowthai we know: “I have tendencies, psycho tendencies / touch me tenderly, heaven let me in.” ‘adhd’ is a tour-de-force through his many moods, and a well-earned and perfectly judged climax to the album. 

TYRON traces a more or less direct decline in ego from its start to its end – and the artist’s appeal increases in direct correlation with that, finishing on the strongest material he’s yet released. Political unrest in the UK has only increased since he put out Nothing Great About Britain in 2019, and some might be disappointed that this follow-up doesn’t continue that Boris-bashing mode. The most cynical might say that this is an album-length PR move to rehabilitate his image. But TYRON feels like a necessary release for the controversial rapper. Even though he’s placed himself as the centre of attention this time around, there is still plenty of societal commentary to be gleaned from his autobiographical missives – and it’s no less urgent or energising.