The first rap music I ever loved was British. In 1988, when I was about to turn nine, my family moved to London for a year. (My dad, a history professor, was on sabbatical, trying to write a book that he never ended up finishing.) The UK had Top Of The Pops, which turned pop music into something linear and statistical — easy to follow, like baseball. And this was right in the midst of the UK’s Second Summer Of Love, the time when house music absolutely took over as a cultural phenomenon. This came through in the pop charts, which meant even a little kid could hear all this underground computerized house music. And the stuff I liked the most was hip-house, the version of house that had people rapping over it. Hip-house existed in America, too; serious rap fans considered it a scourge. But in the UK, it basically was rap music. You’d hear dribs and drabs of other stuff — Tone Loc, De La Soul — but you’d hear a whole lot more rappers with thick London accents going in over house pianos.
The thing about UK rap: It didn’t really evolve from American rap. American rap and UK rap had a common ancestor in Jamaican soundsystem reggae, but from there, they went in vastly different places. UK rap existed, more or less, in isolation, pulling in little bits and pieces from the US. And it existed within a lineage of what the critic Simon Reynolds calls “the ‘ardkore continuum.” It was pirate-radio music. Pirate radios have a rich history in the UK, and they’ve been around to popularize a whole vast array of musical genres, especially the ones made and loved by West Indian immigrants: reggae, dancehall, house, techno, gabber, jungle, big beat, garage. When grime bubbled up in the early ’00s, it was part of that same extended rave scene — more about chaotic propulsion than lyrical consideration. That’s what made it exciting.
That’s a simplistic pocket history, of course. British-born rappers have had massive impacts on American rap: Slick Rick, MF DOOM, 21 Savage. UK-based rappers have made dents: Monie Love, the “Man’s Not Hot” guy. And lyrics have always mattered in UK rap, too. The Streets were always a distinctly lyrics-first proposition, more about storytelling than beats. But even Mike Skinner was part of that pirate-radio world. After the initial grime boom faded, people like Dizzee and Wiley scored massive UK hits, rapping over cheesed-out EDM tracks, but nothing was happening over there that would make an American fan pay a lot of attention. When grime had its big resurgence a couple of years ago, things changed, and the rest of the world started catching up. Drake and A$AP Rocky started throwing Skepta on songs, and Stormzy became one of the biggest stars in the UK. And now UK rap seems to be hitting a whole new era — a time when it finally divests itself from that whole pirate-radio dance-music universe, when it develops whole new post-grime sounds and aesthetics. Other things are happening now: road rap, UK drill, Dave.
Right now, the #1 album in the UK is Psychodrama, the full-length debut from the South London rapper Dave. Dave is a sensitive, piano-playing 20-year-old who raps thoughtfully and introspectively over slow, pretty beats. He’s been a cult figure in the UK since he was 16; that’s when Drake jumped on a remix of his single “Wanna Know.” But he works slowly and carefully, with a focused consideration. Psychodrama is an album about trauma and its psychological weight. Dave’s older brother is in prison right now, and Dave has said that the album, which is programmed as an extended therapy session, is inspired by the kind of therapy that his brother is undertaking while he’s locked up. There’s tough talk on the album, and the bass textures and drum programming carry distant echoes of grime. But Dave comes off more as a UK version of J. Cole, a sincere kid who’s doing his best to puzzle through the stresses and injustices that he’s always seen around him.
There are skits on Psychodrama, and they all come in the form of a therapist speaking, urging Dave to think deeply about the situations he’s describing. And he does. He goes in deep. On growing up fatherless: “Used to cry about my dad till my eyes burned / Nose running / You don’t know nothing.” On petty street feuds: “He told me it’s on when he sees me / I barely remember why we’re beefing.” On the assumptions he sees people making about young black men: “You see our gold chains and our flashy cars / I see a lack of self-worth, and I see battle scars.” On his brother’s incarceration: “I remember when you got sentenced and I was throwing up / It’s like they took a piece of my freedom when I had opened up.” (That one features his brother calling on a prison phone, offering encouragement.) On the wages of fame: “Depression when you make it, the pressure and the hatred / Your people talking about you, you can’t say shit / The moment that you ain’t it, the labels are looking for replacements.”
It’s a heavy listen. The album’s centerpiece is “Lesley,” an 11-minute story-song about a pregnant girl who’s in an abusive relationship. It ends with Dave urging any women in her situation to find endings happier than the one he gives her: “I’m begging you to get support if you’re lost or trapped / I understand that I can never understand and I ain’t saying that it’s easy but it must be right.” There are fun moments on Psychodrama, like when Dave talks hard shit in distinctly British ways: “Two men and an angry Merc / That’s war with a German, Winston Churchill.” But more than anything, it’s a striking and considered debut — an example of a kid exploring the outer limits of the genre that nurtured him.
We can hear some of that exploratory sensibility, too, in Grey Area, the new album from the London singer and rapper Little Simz. Simz is a little older than Dave, and she’s a little more directly tied in with grime, both in her background and in the way she raps — hard, athletic, fast to the point where she sometimes sacrifices expressiveness for technique. But she’s got a lot of the same concerns. There’s a song on Grey Area called “Therapy.” And while there’s plenty of flexing on Grey Area, there’s also relationship-talk, anti-misogyny talk, motherhood talk, and general growing-up stuff. And Simz makes a clear attempt to expand her musical vocabulary, rapping over the sweaty thwack of live drums rather than the programmed clatter of the grime tracks that raised her.
I don’t hear Psychodrama and Grey Area as great albums. They don’t have the swaggering inventiveness, the giddy linguistic and/or melodic force, of my favorite rap albums. But they’re intriguing anyway. They show big ideas, big leaps, and a general desire for transcendence. They show talented voices pushing themselves. They show things moving. Things should always move.
1. Conway – “Ghost Musik” (Feat. Busta Rhymes & Aaron Cooks)
Guttural, bloodthirsty old-man shit-talk par excellence. We’re finally starting to hear what happens when Shady Records throws a budget at Westside Gunn and Conway, and I am delighted to report that it sounds like circa-2000 New York nastiness, not like Eminem.
2. Sada Baby & FMB DZ – “Ape Drip”
The following things tend to work well on Sada Baby songs: Relatively calm rap collaborators, fast-and-cheap Bay-style beats, basketball references that are also drug references.
3. DJ Muggs & Mach-Hommy – “900K”
A New Jersey underground enigma teams up with a California legend, which mostly works because the California legend makes a beat that sounds like some New Jersey underground-enigma shit (and because the New Jersey underground enigma is really fucking good).
4. Xavier Wulf – “Space Punks”
I’m just going to be real about my own personal prejudices here: If you make a song called “Space Punks,” and if you play around with a ninja sword in the video, then I will probably end up liking it.
5. E-40 – “Melt”
A 51-year-old rap elder should not be able to get away with doing a Blueface-esque dick dance in his video. Scientists should study E-40 to see how it’s even possible to age this goofily and yet this gracefully. It goes against everything we thought we knew.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
There is literally not one joke I could think of that would be funnier than this photo by itself pic.twitter.com/u3DXLaBtKD
— Lawrence Burney (@TrueLaurels) March 18, 2019