Slowthai ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ – Review

16 Jun

On ‘Nothing Great about Britain’, the heavily hyped debut from Northamptonshire rapper Slowthai, the country’s alleged demise is not just symbolised in the imagery (drinking outside palace gates, sat glued to the sofa watching Eastenders, ASBOS, skunk, the EDL) but embodied by a rapper bereft of both imagination and answers. Slowthai shows an inherent awareness of Society’s ills but his disillusioned, apathetic tone and cynicism speaks louder than his descriptions ever could. If he is trying to sell us on how pathetic we’ve become then he does a pretty good job of exemplifying it.

‘Doorman’s hook of ‘nicotine, can’t quit it’ asserts a hopelessness that is almost certainly justified. As he tries to get in to a club, buy a drink on his zero-hours wage, eye down his rivals, sniff glue and leave without getting battered, you’re left feeling a sense of despondency that would be crushing if you cared more for the protagonist. His descriptions mirror those of a young Alex Turner or Mike Skinner more than any contemporary rapper but his writing lacks the romanticism or wit of their work. Feeling your way around the geography of these songs is rarely anything other than a miserable, deflating experience.

The comparisons to Dizzee Rascal that have been floated about are risible; on a technical level, Slowthai is decent but he’s no world beater. His standard flow is lumpy and slurred, matched by a grating, siren-drill voice. Dizzee embued his rhymes with an energy and vibrance that seems beyond Slowthai’s restricted imagination. Both were ‘in da corner’ (a reference Slowthai makes within a few minutes) but only Dizzee was interested in getting out. Slowthai also lacks the charm of Dizzee; he loves someone like ‘a crackhead loves crack’ and In the same song he compares himself to serial killer Ted Blundy. ‘The plot gets thicker like your shape do’ is one particularly clanging metaphor that would be more forgivable if he didn’t instantly the compare the lucky lady to a grapefruit.

Occasionally Slowthai and his producers compel you with their whiplash intensity or sheer conviction. The electro-punk energy of ‘Doorman’ can’t help but rattle the door of your cynicism. On ‘Missing’, with the help of Slaves, he drills the hook in to your head through bloody minded repetition and anger. In brief spurts this energy is enough to glue the record together, even if it can’t hide the contempt and resentment that ultimately curdles your empathy.

The album ends with ‘Northampton’s Child’, an autobiographical account of Slowthai’s upbringing that, however truthful, doesn’t skew far from predictability and cliche. The ultimate message, that ‘dreams come true’, isn’t original or convincing enough to counter the track’s miserable mood. In a way the song is a half-baked apology to his mum but it’s short on true vulnerability or openess. He doesn’t unknott the social ills or anxieties that have clearly blighted his youth, they are merely seen as stepping stones on a hollow path to fame. That destination isn’t made to feel rewarding or meaningful, nor is the journey there particularly interesting.

The specificity that makes Slowthai’s writing feel authentic is no substitute for true substance and style. This album may be an accurate temperature reading of society’s underclass but appreciation of hip hop shouldn’t be reduced to how ‘realistic’ or ‘authentic’ the described experience might be. A real artist would transcend their background – as the aforementioned Alex Turner, Dizzee Rascal and Mike Skinner did – not merely dwell on it unproductively. Great grime albums are so much more than simply ‘socially relevant.’ They do more than just describe and reflect. They have a perspective and an original voice. They have a purpose and an ingenuity. They innovate lyrically, structurally, sonically, musically. If this lowering of the standards suggests that ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ is the new passmark, then where do we go from here?

4/10

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