“I’m gonna perform all of these songs at Wembley Stadium!” Slowthai declares after being asked by NME which tracks from his new album ‘UGLY’ might make the cut for his Blur support slot at the home of English football in July. “I think the Wembley crowd will be more welcoming to this side of me. I’m gonna have a live band, too: the ‘UGLY’ band that’s full of ugly cunts.”
As hinted at there, the Northampton artist’s third album marks the next stage of his creative evolution following his belligerent 2019 debut ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ and his more introspective 2021 follow-up ‘TYRON’. Produced by Dan Carey (“me and him would go and have a Guinness, get mash-up and make some banging music”) alongside Slowthai’s longtime collaborator Kwes Darko, ‘UGLY’ sees its creator embracing guitars, new attitudes and, most intriguingly, his singing voice like never before. “I sing, man!” he insists to NME at one point, before adding: “Fuck Beyoncé, they call me T-eyoncé.”
Who better, then, to take us through his latest 12-track journey than the man himself? Here’s Slowthai’s track-by-track guide to ‘UGLY’.
“This was the last song we made for ‘UGLY’, funnily enough. It wasn’t even going to be on the album initially! The inspiration behind ‘Yum’ came from speaking to a therapist, who I felt like was reaffirming things I already knew. I felt like it was a waste of time and money, so this is my way of venting that. The song is about being pulled in one direction — such as embracing fatherhood — and then in the other direction, which is being the product of what we know, how we’ve grown up and everything we believe to be the be-all and end-all — but, really, these are the things that tear you apart. It’s about being eaten alive by your own demise, in a way. That’s why it’s called ‘Yum’, because it’s delicious.”
“[This was the first single] because it sounds like a kick in the bollocks! From the very start when the drums kick in, it felt like the thing to introduce people to a different side of me, in terms of the way I’m using cadences in my voice. The song entails taking more for yourself and being selfish in order to give a percent or a fraction of yourself to anyone else: if you’re not happy and you’re not putting yourself first in life, then how can you be good for anyone else?
“During the filming of the video I lost count of the hours I spent in that glass box. [The David Blaine comparisons] are what people are saying, and I suppose it [may] come from my younger self watching that on TV. But concept was about isolating yourself. We can all look at ourselves in the mirror for a few seconds: I don’t know if you’ve ever tried staring in the mirror for 10 minutes, really analysing all of your imperfections. Out of it, though, my head was clear, and I got a lot of art which, at some point, we’re gonna put into a book. We want to inspire people to embrace their own glass case of emotion — like Ron Burgundy, innit!”
“I wrote this the day before the NME Awards 2020! [Laughs] I wish I’d got to that revelation sooner… But that’s why it’s called ‘Sooner’, because I wish I’d got to where I am now to realise that where I was before, at the beginning of my career, was always where I needed to be. It’s like when you’re a kid: you’re carefree, you’re driving in a Peugeot 306, eating Weetabix, feeling lovesick. I wish I’d got to the realisation of how happy I was at that point. It’s like a full-circle moment, going back to the beginning to realise that I didn’t need to know all of this shit to be more unhappy. I was happier when I knew less about this bullshit, and I cared less about it. All the bullshit, though, I also wish I knew sooner that I’d didn’t give a fuck about it, and I still don’t!”
4. ‘Feel Good’
“It’s pretty repetitive, innit? It’s pop music! This is about not feeling good. Basically, you’re the driver in your car and the only person who can make yourself feel good. This is my mantra: when you wake up and the world feels like shit, this is something to shake that off, get up and fucking not give a fuck about it. Feel-good, innit!”
5. ‘Never Again’
“This is my council estate version of ‘Maria’ from West Side Story. Boy meets girl, breaks up with girl, grows up, goes about his life and follows his dreams. He comes back to town, girl’s moved on with her life, married a cunt, the cunt and her have had babies. The guy would love to save her, but can’t because he’s focused on his own ambitions. While he’s back he’s catching up with everyone and then has a realisation, wishes he’d done more for the person but he didn’t because he was being selfish. Therefore she ends up dying at the hands of this merciless, horrible man who should’ve stayed locked away. Then it’s a moment of reflection of if you’d actually done more and hadn’t been so selfish, you might have been able to help. But then it’s also a reflection that you can’t save everyone without first saving yourself. That’s where the title comes from: the story’s ended, she’s dead and you’re on your knees reflecting on memories you both had.”
6. ‘Fuck It Puppet’
“If you go into a pub, or you’re in a situation you could remove yourself from, there’s a voice that speaks, whether it’s in your head or on your shoulder. [The puppet] is the thing that says, ‘Nah, go on! Have one!’. It’s like your bad mate. You have the one drink, and it says, ‘You can have another one!’. Then it leads to being 20 drinks deep, making a fucking scene. I feel like substance abuse is a way of escaping certain things, numbing your everyday life and making it seem a bit more enjoyable as an escape. The ‘Fuck It Puppet’ is the enabler of the escape: he’s like, ‘Come on, we’re free!’. He genuinely doesn’t want you to be the best version of yourself. The consequences of escaping this for a period of time, though, lead to negativity and depression, and you’re just masking the root of the problem. That’s what the ‘Fuck It Puppet’ is there to do; the war within.”
“Every verse on there is actually me singing. I think everyone should sing: it’s the greatest form of expression and brings people together. Even if you can’t sing, as long as you sing from somewhere in your heart and you feel it… I’ve never been trained to sing, but I’ll sing my heart out ’til I’m fucking blue in the face.
“‘HAPPY’ is the anthem for me: ‘I would give anything for a smile’. The main thing we should all strive for in life is happiness. All the things I’ve done to make myself proud, I’ve only put upon myself. But I’d trade them all in a heartbeat just for a smile.”
“Fontaines D.C. and I went to Dan’s and wrote loads of stuff, but this song was the main focus. They came in after I’d done a scratch vocal, but from that I just wrote my bit and we done it, man. It was easy. We went for a Guinness after and had a laugh: we didn’t think about it too much! My friendship with Fontaines started at the Mercury Prize ceremony in 2019: Grian came over and gave me a poem he’d written for me, which was a special moment. Ever since, they’ve been men after my own heart. Every time I’m around them, I feel like family: we’re from the same way of thinking, the same headspace, and it’s like a brotherhood. I just connect with them, man.
“At the time of writing, the war between Ukraine and Russia had just started, [inspiring the lyrics]: ‘Toy soldiers in lines, fall like dominoes / One man’s trash is cash, for some it’s liquid gold’. It’s about the way people give you false hope. It’s like propaganda, the way people are made to feel like they’re fighting for a better cause, but really you’re just fighting someone else’s battle. It’s about how we grow up but still act just like children, all that bullshit. But it’s also about personal things outside of that, which is the inspiration for the first line, and us being moulded by the society we live in. We’re told that it’s for us and everything’s for the greater good of us as people, but it’s not. Then you’re painted to look ugly, and you fall victim to the patriarchy. There’s a lot in this song.”
“Mac DeMarco said to me that ‘Falling’ sounds like Pixies! I was like, ‘Fuck off, man!’ I hate comparisons. If it was like a Pixies song, then they would’ve written it — but they didn’t! I love Pixies, but fuck that, this is mine! This is about feeling like a shell of yourself: you’re sinking into yourself and distancing yourself from the perception of reality, so you feel like you’re drifting endlessly through space. I can imagine the video: there’s a monkey astronaut just floating through space. He’s not going anywhere, he just keeps falling.”
10. ‘Wotz Funny’
“I was gonna call the album this, but I feel like ‘UGLY’ [U Gotta Love Yourself] is a better title. It’s about the irony of life… this is my version of Alanis Morissette‘s ‘Ironic’! My sense of humour has always been dark. With cancel culture, it’s harder to have a sense of humour now because you’re judged on it. Things that tend to be funny aren’t funny, the things that have become the normality in my life… speaking to people who’ve grown up in your average mum, dad, couple siblings environment, you say stuff to them and they’re like, ‘Man, that’s not normal’. So I’m like, ‘You ain’t been in the real world. You live in your little suburb, and you believe that you have an understanding, but you haven’t even seen out of it’. And that’s what’s funny, innit.”
“You hear about tourniquets in war movies, like ‘get the tourniquet, bro!’ when their leg’s trapped under a fucking helicopter. I said it before on ‘Dead Leaves’, you have to cut little pieces of yourself away in order to grow. This is like amputating that whole part of your life to get away: ‘Give me a tourniquet, metaphor burning bridges / I cannot learn from it, I keep on burning shit’. I’m doing everything to get rid of it: if this was a house, it’s getting torched. It then goes back to the thing of giving it all away: you can have every last piece of me, every piece of my soul. I just wanna feel free and be happy, and nothing matters other than that. I’ve gotta love myself.”
12. ‘25% Club’
“As humans, we all have something missing, right? In all religions, there are these commandments or guidelines for living life to stop you wanting more. People that generally follow a religion tend to be happy — obviously there’s ups and downs in any walk of life — but when you go outside of those boundaries, you indulge in certain things and it gives you a taste of it… It’s a constant in every walk of life: the moment you have one bit of sugar, you crave more; the moment you fuck, you wanna fuck all the time; you do drugs, you wanna do more to feel the buzz. We’re constantly in search of this missing piece of us, right? I think we’re 75% of a person, and we’re missing 25%. That’s what the ‘25% Club’ is: it’s the place where all these people that are missing that thing come, and you find your other 25% and that’s the piece that makes you feel whole. It might not be forever, but in that moment you feel complete.”
Slowthai’s new album ‘UGLY’ is out now