“I hate the internet,” Slowthai drawls with a sense of resignation on the spoken-word outro to ‘PLAY WITH FIRE’, the terse and brittle song that closes the first half of ‘TYRON’. It’s a simple, effective missive aimed at a brutally judgmental social media landscape that often resembles a bored toddler who’s watched Gladiator one too many times: thumbs up or thumbs down, you’re good or you’re bad, you’re in or you’re out. Feed ‘em to the lions.
An implicit riposte to those false dichotomies, the Northampton rapper’s second album is divided clearly – and powerfully – in two: the first seven tracks course with the same punk energy that powered his extraordinary 2019 debut ‘Nothing Great About Britain’, while the remainder reveals the 26-year-old’s mellower, sonically softer side. The cast-list features rap royalty Skepta, Denzel Curry and A$AP Rocky, as well as schmoozy crooner James Blake and Gen-Z icon Dominic Fike (to whom genre’s so passe) – a reflection of an artist who is equal parts hip-hop, punk and UK rap, with pop sensibilities. The record is in form and content an ode to complexity and nuance, a portrait of an inner psyche swollen with defiance, but also prone to shrink with self-doubt.
Since he emerged as the enfant terrible of Brexit Britain’s musical landscape, the man born Tyron Frampton has been widely cast in the former role. He was the self-styled ‘Brexit Bandit’ who declared uninspiring then-PM Theresa May “a dickhead” and brandished a mock-severed head of her successor Boris Johnson at the Mercury Prize, his impassioned rabble-rousing in stark contrast to the apathy of the British establishment.
It was a role that served him well; the tabloid headlines piled up. ‘Nothing Great About Britain’, meanwhile, pulsed with disgust at false patriotism, at Brexiteers’ nostalgia for a supposedly better time that a British-Bajan council estate kid like Slowthai had no place in. This same rage and resentment flows through the first half of ‘TYRON’.
Opener ‘45 SMOKE’ clocks in at less than two minutes, but is vacuum-packed with the venomous dispatches of the dispossessed: “I used to jack cars with the Phillips / Speak patois in case somebody listens”, he seethes atop a dense instrumental that sounds as though it’s slowly hotboxing him. Yet another voice promises: “The whole world is mine.” These noxious gases carry over into the slinky, insidious ‘DEAD’, on which he reclaims the controversy and boasts, “I take liberties, try – and I prosper… I stand tall – you all curl up”.
Yet even this half of the record indicates a sense of insecurity, frontloaded as it is with big-name features. Skepta dominates the eerie, pan pipe-led (and tellingly titled) second track ‘CANCELLED’, before A$AP Rocky throws the taut, minimalist third song ‘MAZZA’ over to the main man as if he’s the guest artist: “Slowthai, here’s your part – go!” You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Northampton rapper’s saying: “See – these guys like me.”
Because, yes, there is a cloud hanging over ‘TYRON’. Every interview preceding its release has found Slowthai sifting through the fall-out from his appearance at NME Awards in early 2020. You know the story by now: he was named Hero of the Year at the London bash, seemed a little worse for wear, made grubby remarks to comedian Katherine Ryan and got into an altercation after an audience member shouted that he was a “misogynist” (Ryan later said on Twitter that “he didn’t make me uncomfortable” and told Slowthai, “I knew you were joking”).
The rapper, who nonetheless apologised to Ryan, told VICE last September that he saw the ensuing social media firebomb as in-keeping with the classism that he’d faced throughout his career: “A lot of the people who were so quick to speak badly of me were people who, the whole time I’ve been doing well, have stereotyped me. ‘It’s a matter of time ‘til he does something’, you know?” With the album’s muted second half, he chips away at the caricature to reveal a timeworn but true self-portrait.
On the woozy, acoustic guitar-led ‘push’, he shares a vivid image from a simpler time: “Meet me at the back of the bus / Beep-beep with my hat and my gloves.” Groovy album highlight ‘focus’, with its booming beat, plaintive piano and chopped-up backing vocals, aches with the admission: “No-one I can lean on so I’m limping with a walking stick”. Yet on the same track he also remembers what really matters: “I miss my brothers; I miss my fam as well / Everybody else can go and fuck themselves.”
The album was largely written in lockdown, a lonely enough time even when you aren’t persona non grata. So it makes sense that the result should be a deeply moving, melancholic – but never self-pitying – record about shame, defiance, childhood, adulthood, mistakes and, ultimately, forgiving yourself. To quote the bruised part two track ‘nhs’: “All the best shit’s got scratches on the surface.” On ‘TYRON’, Slowthai roars.
Release date: February 12
Record label: Method Records