Various Artists – ‘Top Boy (A Selection of Music Inspired by the Series)’ review

With the show's Drake-funded return comes an accompanying album whose American influences slightly compromise its vision of London. Still, with features from Little Simz and Peckham rapper SL, this is a consistently exciting record

The Netflix-acquired cult drama Top Boy returns today for its third series, following a huge cash injection from Canadian superstar Drake. Despite the comeback’s roots across the pond, the record focuses on showcasing the best products of London’s streets.

Considered celebration of the talent and dynamism of some of our capital’s hottest musicians, there was no question this 17-track album was going to be fierce and London-centred.

Artists such as Dave and Little Simz, who star in the new series, appear alongside the likes of Fredo and Giggs on a soundtrack that retains the grit and harshness integral to Top Boy’s success. Vibrating, ambient keys provide the backdrop for ‘Greaze Mode’ rapper Nafe Smallz’s opening track ‘Riding On E’, a social commentary of darkness and uncertainty. Piano chords and processed strings are layered under Teeway’s ‘Feeling It’, a heartfelt response to the complex social struggles he faces: “They gave bro life and that’s why my heart aches”.

Drake’s deep involvement in the UK rap sound was solidified by his ‘Behind Barz’ freestyle, which was released on Link Up TV last July. Fans reacted to Anglophilic ad libs such as, “Shout out Giggs for setting the ting / SM1′ with comments like, ‘Give this man a UK citizenship’”, and the Toronto rapper’s latest project wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of a studio recording of this freestyle. Added as a bonus track, ‘Behind Barz’ is a moody, drill-inspired track which demonstrates Drake’s musical versatility.

South London rapper Youngs Teflon has gained a strong underground reputation over the last decade, and his contribution ‘Overseer’ is a highlight of the album. Capturing the sociopolitical nuances at the core of Top Boy’s subject matter, he raps: “Driving through my town – it’s all gentrified / But when I was in my teens they were petrified”. Concluded by one of several short clips from Netflix’s new series, the track offers a teaser of imminent conflicts, as the show’s new star Jamie is told: “I don’t give a fuck who’s coming for me. I’m back… I’m back for good.”

Lighter elements offset the ominous tone – see the typically humorous lyricism of ski-masked Peckham rapper SL. ‘100 Thoughts’ sees the precocious 18-year-old rap: “I be in the gaff just baking / Tell my bros come bring some flavours/Now we doing up ‘Come Dine With Me”. It’s followed by the admirably simplistic: “I smoke herb / I’m a herbivore”. Such content is a pleasant relief from the sharp, venomous storytelling that courses through the record.

Jamaican dancehall musicians Popcaan and Quada also inject their usual dose of marimba-driven tropical sounds. It’s not exactly sun-drenched, but their collaboration ‘Billions’ is a lounging tune, arguably slightly out of place in a predominantly dark and gritty homage to Top Boy’s fictional Hackney Summerhouse estate. There’s mumble rap here, too. The sound creeps into the first verse of ‘My Town’, as Canadian rapper Baka Not Nice raps, “You a fronter / You a stunner / You ain’t even got no gunners”; the tone verges on the whiny. 

Ultimately, these tropes of modern American trap rap slightly undermine the overall vision of the album as a reflection of Top Boy’s uncompromising portrayal of London streets. Still, the record does mirror the show in its engaging presentation of crime, violence and social marginalization. Fans won’t be disappointed.