The grime superhero fails to flex his production muscles, despite cameos from the underground’s biggest hitters
Wiley, the undisputed king of the British urban underground, has been an unstoppable force in music for over a decade, since he first popped up as ringleader of the Roll Deep crew. Since then, like Atlas he’s carried the world of grime on his back with a heavy pride. As well as being one of the most talented artists of a generation, he’s one of the most prolific: in 2010 he released 203 songs in one download. But his relentless energy, blowing standard music-industry protocol out of the water, has resulted in a strange anomaly: he’s never managed to release a good album, at least not in the traditional sense.
We may one day see last year’s ‘It’s All Fun And Games Till Vol 1’ as seminal, but if you look to his official, label-led output (in 2012 he also pushed out ‘Evolve Or Be Extinct’ on Big Dada, making little impact), his patchy discography confirms that whatever he’s been blessed with, it wasn’t designed with a record release schedule in mind. No-one’s more aware of this lack of eye contact with the system than Wiley himself, who has made a career of balancing two different music games for two different fanbases. While his core allegiance will always be with the grime crowd, he’s made no secret of the fact he won’t stop until he’s emulated the crossover success of Dizzee Rascal and Tinchy Stryder, both of whom started out as paid-up Roll Deep associates.
Technically his ninth studio album, ‘The Ascent’ is his attempt to hit the big time; to capitalise on the success of last summer’s chart-topping ‘Heatwave’, which still sizzles here, and make sure fickle Radio 1 listeners can’t write him off as a guy with a couple of one-hit wonders to his name (don’t forget ‘Wearing My Rolex’, or the UK Number One he bagged in 2010 with Roll Deep, ‘Good Times’). The record is stuffed with enough 4Music-friendly guest appearances to get the tweenagers tweeting (hi Tinchy! hi Tulisa!), but despite its pop production values, Wiley stops short of the full V Festival cash-in.
Nearly TWENTY more MCs – from Lethal Bizzle on ‘First Class’ to JME & Skepta on ‘Can You Hear Me?’ – come together to inject the record’s radio-friendly blueprint with some heavier grime whiplash. It’s mostly self-produced, with help coming from the pop-focused Rymez on a handful of tracks. But while the intention is right – he could have outsourced the whole thing to Calvin Harris, after all – the sound of Wiley’s two worlds colliding often feels like an ill-fitting cacophony of mediocrity.
If it’s not the beats being too polished to be affecting (‘Skillzone’), it’s the cringey pop hooks (‘Reload’) that dishonour the timelessness Wiley achieved effortlessly with his ‘Ice Rink’-era instrumentals in the early 2000s. It’s extra disappointing because it’s the outcome everyone could have predicted. Only the LP’s soaring ‘Intro’ hints at greatness, and despite the raw talent on display, the dose is diluted and the sum total falls short. For Wiley, a truly great album is still proving elusive.