slowthai
Nothing Great About Britain
[Method Music/True Panther Sounds]

What do you say about slowthai now he’s gone international? He might have ‘NN’ tattooed on a finger, but more importantly it’s splat across every part of his debut album. The self-confessed former drug dealer knew he had to change his world, and music was his salvation. The boy in the corner – of Spring Boroughs, of Lings, of Abington – is now centre stage, catapulted into our ears and our hearts over the past year or so, with a slow drip feed of streaming singles that finally went nuclear once ‘Doorman’ gave him the sort of radio hit that can’t be ignored. His punky guileful sneer at “Great Britain” in this strangulated Brexit landscape is some great timing. The press all want a piece of him: his counter-culture quotes, his tattooed torso and his maniacal smile are all right for 2019.

“Nothing great about Britain/Tea ‘n’ biscuits/Mash, jellied eels and a couple little trinkets”

The opening salvo, the title track, pulls no punches. The video spoofs the mythology of Excalibur, and sees him – gloriously, ludicrously – knighting kids in King’s Heath. Mocking British things like royalty is a very slowthai trait; a great bit of hip-hop détournement to make you question what role things and people play in modern society. And those vivid, HBO-drama, minor chord synth stabs that precede the skittering beats is slowthai’s sound in a nutshell. Mostly recorded with producer Kwes Darko in East London, his Eski grime/00s UK rap style is brought up to date with his own particular delivery that continually fluctuates between mumbling and threatening. His flow often goes out of time intentionally for dramatic purpose, making you focus harder.

The Mura Masa-produced ‘Doorman’ is the one most will have already heard. It’s banging electronic punk attitude lights up a room when on full tilt, and brings to mind The Prodigy and The Streets as much as the grime scene. It’s spoken-word samples about glue-sniffers that begin and end the track is funny rather than cautionary, though his rhymes are more about the culture clash between the rarified west London world he now travels in rubbing up against his NN persona.

“I run my town/But I’m nothing like Boris/Tyron for PM”

‘Dead Leaves’ is pure bravado, a twitchy club bassline over tales of night-time hedonism being an everyday occurrence that doesn’t require a nightclub. ‘Gorgeous’ is a musically-dense number, another semi-autobiographical tale of running around as kids and getting up to the usual nonsense, and looking back with fondness. He quotes all those ShoeTown places that sound somehow elevated with his delivery: Southfields, Toby Fields, Blackthorn, Moulton, Spring Boroughs. Franky it’s all a bit surreal to know people in Mexico City or Los Angeles will be hearing these reference points.

‘Crack’ has an American low-slung gangsta rap/slow R&B feel, and it doesn’t really suit him. It doesn’t even sound like him. Let us move on. ‘Grow Up’ sees a guest spot from Birmingham rapper JayKae, and we’re back in familiar territory [well, the Midlands]. The two of them have different styles, the hyper-speed of JayKae seemingly forcing slowthai to hasten his  patter. They clearly connect in the middle; the track just burns throughout.

“I ain’t about that gang shit/I’m a lone wolf”

The second album collaboration follows immediately: Skepta brings his experience to ‘Inglorious’ with style, delivering with confidence and speaking random things like “directing movies like Gaspar”. The track weaves and ducks throughout, with Darko’s production skills deftly holding it all together. ‘Toaster’, meanwhile, is a little more folky, a clean guitar line backing another ShoeTown story of redemption.

“Walking through the blocks, I see the cracks/Dodge syringes”

‘Peace Of Mind’ has the catchiest hook on the album, and it’s a gem of a track. Hyping up the contradictions between your daily battles and the dreams you have at night, it’s a moment that shows how anxiety and stress can only be released through mindful rest and recuperation. That’s not a person on this planet that wouldn’t relate to that.

The Slaves-produced ‘Missing’ is as thick and pungent as you can imagine from them being involved, with a unsettling cacophonous chorus that elevates the track from the norm. Which brings us to the final song, ‘Northampton’s Child’. It’s the story of his childhood: the home moves, the booze madness, the death of his young brother. And most importantly – the love of his mother, that centred him and gave him hope. She has clearly given him strength to persevere, so shout out to Ma for her role in giving the world the talents of Tyron Frampton.

Nothing Great About Britain is a tour de force precisely because slowthai’s personalty is forceful, and the beats sharp enough to create a coherent whole. Where he goes from now – he can’t rap about NN life forever, you imagine – is just as fascinating as this piece of work.

But for now, in this game of thrones, we have a new prince in town; one that everyone can fight for.

Phil Moore

Nothing Great About Britain is out Friday / order now, or visit Spun Out on Gold St on Friday at 1pm for an album signing session