I don’t know why American critics stopped writing about grime. Sometime around 2004, grime — the British hybrid of rap and dancehall and UK garage and blaring car alarms — was the most exciting genre of music in the world. London suddenly seemed to overflow with hyena-voiced teenagers who’d learned how to make madly juddering beats on their PlayStations, fuming in near-impenetrable Cockney-Caribbean accents over tracks that sounded like they were designed to blow out spaceship speakers. At some point, though, the novelty wore off, at least in America. Dizzee Rascal, who once looked like his genre’s Cobain, became a respected niche-rap album artist, and then suddenly took off in his homeland with a few cheesed-out crossover-Eurodance hits. Wiley, Dizzee’s onetime mentor, had crossover hits, too, though his, at least, sounded more connected to the music he’d been making when he was blog bait. Lady Sovereign signed to Def Jam and made a deeply wack album. Kano, who had the talent and presence to become a huge star, randomly appeared in the fighting game Def Jam: Icon, and that was about it for his American exposure. American critic-tastemaker types moved onto Houston screw or hyphy or snap music or whatever the fuck. It happens. But things are, all of a sudden, rumbling again. Grime, in its original car-door-slamming-on-your-face style, went through a commercial resurgence in the UK last year, with a bunch of scene fixtures suddenly scoring pop hits without altering their styles. And Kanye West noticed, which is a good sign.
Last week, when I rhapsodized about Kanye West’s performance at the Brit Awards, I neglected to mention something important: The identities of all those dudes onstage with him. The people up onstage were grime artists — Skepta, JME, Novelist, Stormzy — and their crews. Kanye shouted out Skepta onstage, then invited him, and a bunch of other grime dudes, onstage as surprise guests at his own London shows. Look at this crowd — Kanye’s crowd, mind — going the fuck off to Skepta’s “That’s Not Me.”
That headline up there is a misnomer; Skepta has been making grime for a decade. He’s been a thing. He put in time with Meridian Crew and Roll Deep, two dominant grime crews, before forming his own, Boy Better Know, with his brother JME. He’s had real, no-joke hits in the UK for years now. They’ve usually been fairly cheesy and trancey, like “Bad Boy” and “Rescue Me.” Even on songs like that, though, his talent is obvious. He’s got a muscular but agile flow, a punchy rapid-fire thing that lets him sound tough on even the cheesiest, most sensitive pop-rap songs. And when he gets insular, it can really work, too, as on the 2013 Blood Orange collab “High Street.” Besides, the structure of grime is such that rappers can make goofy pop hits and still maintain their edge as long as they’re willing to show up in pirate-radio studios and participate in frantic, chaotic, endless ciphers like this:
Those crazy, energetic freestyle sessions, either in pirate-radio studios or onstage, are as essential to grime as the songs themselves. The best ones get nearly as many YouTube views as the big hits. But for a long time, at least to an outsider like me, there seemed to be a clear division between the two. UK rappers felt like they had to make fluff to cross over, and they saved those bruising rants for the underground. Last year, though, we got three big hits that translated that intensity to the radio. Meridian Dan’s “German Whip” is a simple and direct ode to how badass it feels to push an expensive automobile. Lethal Bizzle, the man behind some of early grime’s loudest, most chaotic anthems, scored with “Rari Workout,” a song where he’s literally just screaming at you to lift more weights. But the best and hardest of the three songs was Skepta’s “That’s Not Me,” a titanic, hammering banger about throwing your Gucci in the trash. (JME deserves some sort of Best Supporting Grime Guy trophy; he’s got verses on all three songs.)
“That’s Not Me” has an energy to it, and it’s a kind of energy that translates just as well to this side of the Atlantic as to the other. And Skepta seems ready to capitalize on that energy, to maybe make the sort of push in the U.S. that no grime rapper has ever quite pulled off. A week or two ago, he dropped “Shutdown,” a fiery monster of a song that samples both Drake’s fake patois and some white lady’s terrified reaction to Kanye’s Brits performance. “Shutdown” isn’t “That’s Not Me,” but it’s cut from the same cloth, and I could get really used to hearing songs like that again. Skepta’s been spending time in the studio with Kanye, as well, which is promising. (If you’re looking for it, you might even hear some grime choppiness in Kanye’s “All Day.”) A Kanye cosign alone isn’t enough to break a whole subgenre. Kanye made three songs with Chief Keef and one with King Louie, and Chicago drill still didn’t become a conquering force. But it’s a start. And if Skepta keeps cranking out tracks like that, it could be a lot more.
Lil Herb & Lil Bibby – “Ain’t Heart Bout You”
These two gifted and gruff-beyond-their-years Chicago youngsters came up rapping alongside each other, but they’re both nurturing solo careers, and it’s been a while since we’ve heard them on a song together. But here they are, growling gun threats over florid pianos like nothing’s changed. They sound better together than they do on their own. Best part: Herb gives his mom a couple hundred dollars and tells her go to watch TV so she’ll stop bothering him while he’s trying to smoke weed.
Oba Rowland – “Nobody”
I know exactly nothing about this guy except that he comes from Detroit and has a bunch of tattoos, but the way this track suddenly switches from murky AutoTune fuck-the-world blues to ultra-ratchet Bay Area shit-talk is a beautiful thing.
Cam & Chyna – “Ain’t My Problem”
During the height of L.A.’s jerk-music craze a few years ago, the all-female crew Pink Dollaz seemed like one of the groups poised to break out. But nobody broke out, and now the sisters Cam & Chyna are off on their own, interpolating Shaggy choruses and belting out surprisingly mature breakup lyrics over handclaps and talkbox burps. Encouraging.
Bankroll Fresh – “Dope Boy Shit (Remix)” (Feat. T.I.)
Bankroll Fresh is a hardhead Atlanta rapper whose Life Of A Hotboy mixtape has been slowly catching people’s ears for a few months now. (Also, apparently Marilyn Manson loves him?) Now he’s got T.I. going nuts all over his song “Dope Boy Fresh.” This is a good sign. Good song, too.
Fetty Wap – “Trap Queen (MMG Mix)” (Feat. Fat Trel & Rick Ross)
“Trap Queen,” with its stormy-but-melodic beat and its naggingly catchy hook, is one of the best out-of-nowhere rap anthems in recent history, and it was always screaming out for an all-star remix. Rick Ross, always hungry to pull up-and-comers into his Maybach Music orbit, is happy to comply. But the solid-enough Ross verse isn’t the selling point here. It’s his latest protege, D.C. cult hero Fat Trel, just hijacking the song, owning it completely. Put Fat Trel on everybody’s song, please.