Funny thing about grime: It’s a throwback genre that still sounds like the future. When grime first emerged in the early ’00s, it sounded completely alien. There was just nothing like it. There was a history and a context behind this music: London teenagers’ longtime idolization of American rappers, a deeply entrenched culture of raves and pirate radio stations, beatmaking equipment that was only just becoming widely available, the sudden popular rise and crash of UK garage. But for those of us who weren’t in London, who were attempting to process this music from elsewhere, it was a great explosion of frantic, intense innovation — the UK twisting American rap music into unrecognizable shapes and sending it back to us. We had to work backwards to even figure out what was going on there. Since that initial explosion, things died down. People moved on. The police clamped down hard on every event they could find, just as they’re currently doing with drill music in Chicago. Early grime stars like Dizzee Rascal and Wiley had crossover hits in the UK, but they did it by abandoning the sound that they’d originally created, making goofy (though sometimes great) pop-house stuff instead. Skepta knows. He was there for all of that. And now that he’s the standard-bearer of a newly resurgent grime scene, he’s back to making music that sounds like the early ’00s again. It’s the right move.
Skepta’s not a young guy. He’s 33 — old enough that he was there, hitting the pirate-radio circuit like everyone else, during that initial grime wave. He’s actually two years older than Dizzee Rascal, the first grime artist that Americans like me ever heard. He’s already had a full arc — coming up making chaotic anthems with the Meridian crew, battling Devilman in what’s regarded as a classic 2006 clash, attempting a failed major-label pop crossover. He didn’t really become a major figure, though, until 2014, when he returned to the sound he’d been making when he was basically still a kid. “That’s Not Me,” his massive UK breakthrough, has a great energy to it, but it’s not a young man’s energy. It’s the sort of energy that comes from rediscovery. The beat, which Skepta produced himself, sounds like one of the low-tech PlayStation-created burp-squelches that grime kids had been making around 2003. And both Skepta and his brother JME sound like they’re recommitting themselves, rapping with all the feverish urgency they’d lost: “I used to wear Gucci, threw it all in the bin cuz that’s not me.”
That song helped kick off a popular grime renaissance in the UK, and that led to Skepta finding himself on stage with guys like Kanye West and Drake. And now he’s finally given us Konnichiwa — the first time a grime artist has ever released a major international album. (Back in the day, even Dizzee Rascal could only get an American release months after his stuff had been out at home.) Skepta could’ve drifted back toward pop acceptance with this one. He could’ve made something that sounds like Drake; it might’ve even been a smart move. (Both Drake and Skepta are currently claiming that Drake has signed with Skepta’s Boy Better Know label, which doesn’t even make sense. Drake’s also been showing off a new BBK tattoo.) But instead, Skepta has given us an album of end-to-end slappers. Konnichiwa is short and mean and nasty. Even when Skepta is rapping emotionally about making his parents proud, he’s doing it over a beat that sounds like an 808 eating itself.
Skepta produced most of the album himself and relied on fellow grime guys for the rest of it. American voices only show up a couple of times — A$AP Nast, of all people, grunting come-ons on the hook of “Ladies Hit Squad” and Pharrell rapping primly on “Numbers.” A Pharrell collab could signal an attempt at an international crossover smash. He does, after all, have plenty of those to his credit. Instead, Pharrell and Skepta co-produce a beat that sounds just like early-’00s Neptunes, with all that grimy futuristic emptiness. And it’s a perfect match; that old Neptunes sound was, after all, a huge influence on the early grime scene. It’s the sound of both Pharrell and Skepta returning to their respective roots. And even though the album includes tracks that are a year or two old — “That’s Not Me,” “It Ain’t Safe,” “Shutdown” — those songs never rip you out of the flow of the album. The flow is all fast, choppy intensity anyway, and those songs sound like old friends. After all, I can’t imagine a situation when I wouldn’t be happy to hear “That’s Not Me.”
Americans like me aren’t going to walk around quoting Skepta bars. It’s not the kind of rapper he is. If anything, his punchlines can often come off sounding clumsy and corny — “cool like Herc,” “you can’t touch me like Hammer.” But as a rapper, he’s hard and fast and rigorous. There’s always a ferocious urgency to his delivery. And more than a decade after critics like me started going apeshit over grime, there’s still a powerful novelty to hearing this accent, this slang, this different sort of intonation. (If nothing else, it’s weirdly refreshing to hear a big rap album with absolutely nothing to do with the sound of Atlanta trap.) Historically, grime hasn’t been an albums genre. It’s a genre that depends on chaos — on pirate-radio freestyles, on random singles that become club anthems when they’ve only been out a few days. Albums haven’t been a part of most grime rappers’ skill sets because they haven’t had to master that side of things. But Konnichiwa succeeds through pure excitement. It never lets up. You never can tell with something like this; it could turn out to be the climax of a genre resurgence that’ll be over in a month. But right now, it sounds like the beginning of something — or, maybe, the rebirth of something.
1. Blu – “Palisades” (Feat. Killa Kali, Big Twins, & Planet Asia)
This hazy, string-soaked beat is just beautiful; the Alchemist makes it seem easy to crank out things like this. The beat seems too pretty to give to a group of dense, wordy West Coast indie-rap veterans, but in this case, Alchemist made exactly the right call.
2. Joey Purp – “Photobooth”
The beat here might be the funkiest elephant stampede I’ve ever heard.
3. O.T. Genasis – “Cut It (Remix)” (Feat. Young Thug & Kevin Gates)
A year and a half after he fell in love with the coco, O.T. Genasis proves that he’s good for something else: Getting Young Thug and Kevin Gates (two guys that, rumor has it, don’t like each other) to rap on the same track. Gates wins this round. Hopefully, more rounds will follow.
4. Migos – “Cocoon”
I never thought I’d live to hear the Migos become a spaced-out psychedelic R&B vocal trio, but here we are.
5. Styles P – “Think Lox” (Feat. Sheek Louch)
God bless all aging New York rappers who still sound like they will open up your face with a straight razor. “All this blood and I don’t feel a thing.”
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
If Seinfeld had a Drake laugh track… pic.twitter.com/sO34oNiAaA
— Pigeons & Planes (@PigsAndPlans) May 9, 2016