Being Poor Is Expensive

Fifteen years after his last album (and with a gaggle of prestigious film and TV roles now under his belt), Ashley Thomas returns to the grime sound of his early mixtapes and his own memories of growing up in Hammersmith and Kensal Rise

“Mill Hill and back” – the route Bashy used to take as a bus driver in NW London and referenced in his new song ‘Sticky’. Those days are well behind him now, but his early grime legacy began around that time with his Chupa Chups mixtape, and a few years after that, his debut album. Some fifteen years on since his debut, Bashy, now an accomplished actor, is back with Being Poor Is Expensive. This is about his beginnings, told with unwavering honesty as he delves into family, the institutional roadblocks he overcame as a Black British boy, and paying homage to his corner of London. 

The melancholy opener, ‘The London Borough of Brent’, forms the location backdrop to the record. It begins with a sample of a tube announcement calling at Willesden Junction next. Bashy talks about Black prenatal deaths, the impact of witnessing street violence and feeling lucky to be alive. It’s clear that he is preparing us for a no-holds-barred album. 

The single ‘Sweet Boys Turned Sour’ drives forward with its 808 bass which kicks in after Bashy paints a picture of his childhood: Lover’s rock, Arsenal, and Hey Arnold, the innocence of which was gradually tainted by his environment. Bashy is keen to shatter the bad parent myth that is so often peddled to explain antisocial behaviour, “My mum was around / My dad was around / Raised me well but soon as I come out the house / The zones got me with the influence.” 

The sample of Dennis Brown’s ‘Let Me Down Easy’, overlaid with Bashy’s fiery flow hits hard on the title track. Since his inconsistent Catch Me If You Can, Bashy has evolved as a wordsmith. He mixes wit with insight in equal measure here, “I didn’t need the movies to be surrounded by them monsters / I didn’t need Guy Ritchie to be surrounded by those mobsters.” 

‘Made In Britain’ begins with a recording of an elder wishing well for her grandchildren in her prayers. The track pays homage to Bashy’s nan making sacrifices to come to England on the Empire Windrush but highlights the 1970s brand of racism that still exists today. He samples Aswad’s mellow yet anguished song ‘Back to Africa’, aligning well with the central message. 

‘Earthstrong’ is an emotionally gripping final chapter to the album. It features a single trumpet lamenting as though it were ushering in a jazz funeral march, to a dulled heartbeat rhythm. Bashy crescendoes into rapid-fire verses on life’s transience and his regret of not having checked in with his nan before her passing. He also reflects on his dad as an “Old school tough guy / Rarely seen the man cry / But when his mum died, he reverted to a young child.” Watching parents mourn losing theirs is a different shade of grief. Even less talked about is the notion of dads from that generation breaking down in front of their kids – Bashy is unfiltered about it and it leaves a lasting impression. 

Being Poor Is Expensive is a compelling window into a former life on an estate. But as much as the album drops incisive truth bombs about Britain’s class and racial divisions, it’s also a heart-rending gut punch about love and hope. The hopes of children on those estates, the love between family and the love of your cultural identity. Bashy’s lyricism, along with crisp production and well-judged sampling makes this worth listening to repeatedly. It is Bashy on top form in his modus operandi: storytelling. 

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