It’s tempting to juxtapose how British rapper slowthai’s “Drug Dealer”—whose tortured flow and lyrics about how the lack of options for British working-class youth essentially programs them for a life of crime—rides Gothic strings and a skittering beat against more mainstream hip-hop songs about the same subject (like Migos’s “Narcos”), and so celebrate slowthai as a real, true, and progressive voice. Such comparisons rely on a respectability politics that I’m sure he’d resist. When he attacks other rappers who write lyrics about drug dealing for their lack of imagination, he sounds bitter enough that I suspect there’s a degree of self-criticism involved.
There’s nothing aspirational about slowthai’s music, although his recent singles like “Polaroid” and “Ladies” reflect the fact that he’s slowly rising to a minor league fame. He only started releasing music two and a half years ago, and he still hasn’t released his debut album or even a mixtape, although his two EPs, 2017’s I Wish I Knew ﾉ ﾉ and last September’s RUNT, and seven singles, add up to about an hour’s worth of tracks. He’s made an amazing amount of progress in a short time, growing more prolific recently.
I Wish I Knew ﾉ ﾉ shows an artist trying to find his voice. The production is often blown-out and deliberately cranks his vocals into the red, seemingly influenced by American SoundCloud hip-hop. (“IDGAF” even recalls XXXTentacion.) It’s permeated with a macho bravado he would soon drop, although on “R.I.P.,” slowthai says he’s a feminist. That’s contradicted by some of the EP’s other lyrics, but in his video for “Ladies,” he subverts hundreds of years of art history by appearing fully nude while his girlfriend remains clothed.
RUNT and the singles that preceded it, such as “Polaroid” and “The Bottom,” show an MC who has found a simpatico producer in Kwes Darko (who produced three of its songs himself and co-produced the other two with J D. Reid) and who knows exactly what he wants to say and how to say it. His recent music has an unconventional sense of rhythm, with the intensity of his vocals feeling more important than constantly sticking to the beat, and Timbaland-inspired drum machine programming that goes for syncopated percussion. He’s also mythologized his own status as an outsider both in class terms and the fact that he grew up and still lives in Northampton, a small town more than an hour outside London. (“The Bottom” is structured around spoken word soundbites from Kwes Darko about how slums exist even in towns like Northampton.)
RUNT returns frequently to the subject of his experiences as a drug dealer. If Pusha T, “If You Know You Know,” claims he gained valuable knowledge selling coke, crime just left slowthai with an angry, fatalistic sense that this was his inevitable destiny. “GTFOMF” emphasizes the cost of addiction in his neighborhood, with slowthai saying that he saw people on drugs before understanding what drugs were. There’s a sense that, as he says on “Drug Dealer,” “nothing great about Britain.” The bite of the EP’s final two songs, “Call My Own” and “Slow Down,” is enhanced by their pretty piano and harp loops. Making a Christmas song can be a cynical way to insure a perpetual stream of income, but “Slow Down Santa” is an anti-celebration par excellence, recalling years when slowthai thought “Fuck Santa ‘cause we’re cold as shit.”
With the mainstream success of MCs like Skepta and Stormzy, and the way Dizzee Rascal and Wiley have turned into elder statesmen, the edge of Britain’s grime scene has faded. Now the road rap and drill scenes feel far more genuinely dangerous, to the point where Scotland Yard regularly orders YouTube to take down videos by drill rappers and has created a moral panic around the music similar to the one created by the 2012 release of Chief Keef’s Finally Rich. slowthai is still pursuing grime but on his own terms; Kwes Darko’s beats are influenced by drum’n’bass, but there’s a nightmarish atmosphere to RUNT and slowthai’s recent singles. The experiences he describes on RUNT seem to be in his past—enough so that the “Drug Dealer” video ends with the grim humor of one of the characters he plays holding a rifle to his chin but deciding not to kill himself because a pizza delivery man suddenly knocks on his door—but he hasn’t conquered them. (His visuals are consistently imaginative and witty.) If his music is based on chronicling a past of poverty and crime and that turns out to be a path out to some kind of financial success, what direction can he go in? “Polaroid,” whose lyrics discuss the inevitability of screwing up in life and the fact that his mistakes will now make it onto social media, offers the clearest hint. No matter how wealthy and famous slowthai might get, his most recent work suggests the anxiety and rage powering his music seems bound to stick with him.
STEVE ERICKSON is a film and music critic and filmmaker who lives in New York. His work has can be read on his blog http://steeveecom.wordpress.com. He writes for Gay City News, the Nashville Scene, Studio Daily, Fandor, Kinoscope and other publications. His sixth short, CULTURE SHOCK, is now in post-production.