“A bunch of young men in black dancing extremely aggressively onstage — it made me feel so intimidated. And it’s not just what I expect to see on primetime TV.” That voice — British, female, unmistakably white — blows through “Shutdown,” the monster single that the London MC Skepta released in 2015. Skepta had just been onstage at the Brit awards — him and virtually every other major figure from the resurgent grime scene — dancing alongside Kanye West as West performed his otherwise dead-on-arrival single “All Day.” That little monologue was staged, not sampled from a news program or anything. And yet it represented all the forces arrayed against Skepta, and against grime in general, as the genre was going through a sudden out-of-nowhere creative and commercial boom — a boom kicked off by Skepta himself.
Five years later, Skepta faces a very different landscape and a very different set of antagonists. The anti-grime forces were real; London police put in heavy work demonizing and crushing the musicians and the shows. And yet Skepta still emerged. He piled up hit singles. He won a Mercury Music Prize. He guested on tracks from globally enormous figures like Drake and A$AP Rocky. He played practically every major festival in the world, and he made an impact in America far beyond what any other grime MC has ever managed. So Skepta now speaks with the surly guardedness that tends to arrive with fame. He’s muscled past those old obstacles, but he hasn’t forgotten them.
On Ignorance Is Bliss, Skepta’s new album and his first in three years, he looks askance at all his new friends and his new enemies: “Everybody wanna be my arch-nemesis.” Where Konnichiwa, his last album, was full of breathless flexing, the new album radiates suspicion. It’s emotional, but it’s not confessional: “Man, I been going through it / I don’t wanna talk about it, I don’t wanna get into it.” Instead, Skepta looks out at a world that seems to be determined to take anything he says the wrong way: “Tried to explain my self, that was the worst decision… Stay in the house, phone number off-limits.” And he’s got even more distrust for the establishment forces that now want to embrace him: “Politicians tryna get tickets to come to the shows / I shake hands with a long arm, never get close / Can’t see me, man, I stay ghost, I move like cigarette smoke.”
Grime wasn’t exactly supposed to be the sort of genre that bred elder statesmen. It was a burst of thrilling anarchy, all these unruly teenagers fuming giddily over homemade PlayStation beats that sounded like malfunctioning spaceships. Grime artists didn’t play shows; they played raves. Young artists were old souls, and a guy like Dizzee Rascal was already radiating bitter paranoia at 16. Wiley, the man who probably deserves the lion’s share of the credit for inventing and developing the sound in the first place, spent his early years beefing with ex-proteges and loudly insisting on his own importance; he’s still doing both now. (Wiley and Skepta have been going back and forth this year.) This seemed like one of those sudden bursts of collective inspiration that burns hot and fast and then disappears. For a while, that’s what happened, and old grime stars started making crossover dance-pop hits. Skepta dabbled in that, but then he came bursting back with a barrage of bangers — “That’s Not Me,” “Shutdown,” “It Ain’t Safe” — that were hard and fun and charismatic enough to help build up a whole new grime wave.
That was the Skepta of Konnichiwa. It can’t be the Skepta of Ignorance Is Bliss; too much has changed. Grime still exists, but it doesn’t bring the same sense of excitement that it had in 2003 or, for that matter, 2015. The fractious scene has spun off into a bunch of still-chaotic but smaller scenes, giving birth to UK drill and road rap. Skepta, now 36, has talked about not wanting to keep making the same kind of music he was making as a teenager. “It’s not no obligation to make no grime,” he told the BBC in a recent interview. It would’ve made sense if Ignorance Is Bliss was a turgid, depressing album — an example of what happens with embers start to dim. But that’s not what it is. Instead, it’s a hard and focused and adult affair.
Skepta produced much of Ignorance Is Bliss himself, and the album doesn’t have any immediate adrenaline-burst anthems like “That’s Not Me” or “Shutdown.” Instead, he’s slowed down both his music and his delivery. All the tenets of grime are still there — the jittery drums, the minor-key synthetic melodies, the choppy tension. But Ignorance Is Bliss stays at a low burn; it never explodes. And while Skepta still raps with speed and precision, he does it with a sense of discipline and authority that feels new.
There are silly bits on Ignorance Is Bliss because there’s always silliness on grime records. Like this line: “Man, I got milfs in love with the words I rhyme, even though I swear and I curse all the time.” Or this one: “My life like an episode of Maury” (mostly because it’s depressingly funny to imagine British stations showing Maury). But most of the time, Skepta sounds serious and stressed. He’s updated his music in quiet but effective ways, carefully picking collaborators — the British sing-rapper Nafe Smallz on “Greaze Mode,” the Atlanta energy-bomb rapper Key! on “Redrum” — who can complement his voice in ways that feel fresh and immediate. And more than anything else, he’s crafted a heavy, relentless album. This time around, tension, rather than catharsis, is what animates the music. But once again, Skepta cuts through everything around him. Don’t be his arch-enemy.
Ignorance Is Bliss is out 5/31 on Boy Better Know.
Other albums of note out this week:
• A mysterious new Miley Cyrus release called She Is Coming.
• Denzel Curry’s as-yet-unheard ZUU.
• Jawbox frontman J. Robbins’ solo debut Un-becoming.
• Sass’ energetic grunge-punk DIY debut Chew Toy.
• Gazm’s grimy, feral hardcore attack Heavy Vibe Music.
• Soundwalk Collective & Patti Smith’s full-length team-up The Peyote Dance.
• Gemma’s effervescent synthpopper Feeling’s Not A Tempo.
• Pip Blom’s fuzzy, nervy Boat.
• Sinkane’s lively and cosmopolitan Depayse.
• The Gotobeds’ visceral rocker Debt Begins At 30.
• Eluvium’s quiet, contemplative Pianoworks.
• Nightjacket’s dreamy shoegaze-pop debut Beauty In The Dark.
• Krypts’ death-doom roar Cadaver Circulation.
• Duff McKagan’s solo effort Tenderness.
• Christelle Bofale’s Swim Team EP.
• The F-16s’ WKND FRNDS EP.