Release Date: May 6, 2016
Record label: Boy Better Know
As a young British male raised in southern England in the noughties, grime feels like the music of my generation. In the same way the ‘60s had folk and the ‘70s punk, this is our generation’s voice and sound. Ever since I heard the opening bars of “Ghetto Kyote”, I have been gripped. Of course, grime looked dead in the water after the move to the charts and electropop towards the end of the last decade.
Grime’s revival is going overground right now, with north London MC Skepta it’s leader. A prominent figure on the scene since his 2008 debut single Rolex Sweep, the rapper balances his desire to stick to his roots with newfound mainstream fame on his fourth album Konnichiwa. There are a plethora of guest appearances across the record, straddling the friends he’s risen up with (Wiley on Corn On The Curb, his brother Jme on That’s Not Me) and global stars (Pharrell Williams on Numbers, A$AP Nast on Ladies Hit Squad).
Out of Skepta's first few proper albums, Konnichiwa was easily the most successful. It reached number two in the grime MC's native U.K. Thanks in part to support from Drake, it even cracked the Billboard 200 in the U.S, an obvious target through the soft, slow, and melodic "Ladies Hit Squad" and a sparse and percussive Pharrell collaboration, "Numbers." When the album was released, three of its singles had already secured Top 40 U.K.
They don’t come along too often but sometimes certain albums arrive that capture a zeitgeist and define a moment. They just seem bigger and more important than almost anything else. Skepta’s long awaited Konnichiwa is one of those albums. By his own admission, early pioneering grime MC Skepta spent the latter part of the previous decade and the start of this one lost.
It features five singles – two of them silver-certified hits – guest appearances from A$AP Mob’s Young Lord and A$AP Nast and a collaboration with Pharrell Williams, but the most telling track on Skepta’s fourth album might well be one that contains no music at all. As a tense bit of old-fashioned grime called Corn on the Curb unexpectedly ends – Skepta apparently forgetting the lyrics midway through a line, the sparse musical backing grinding to a halt – it’s replaced by the sound of a phone call between Skepta and fellow rapper Chip. The former sounds despondent, which comes as something of a surprise.
A key figure on the grime scene since the early 00s, Skepta rebooted his career and gave the entire genre a jolt in 2014 with the electrifying That’s Not Me. This keenly awaited album, his fourth, rides the wave of that resurgence, which intensified with last year’s brilliant Shutdown, but it also bristles under the pressure. Moments of insecurity – “I can’t be up there with them people,” the Tottenham rapper frets on Corn on the Curb, “I’m too black” – are put to productive use, as are headaches such as police harassment (on Crime Riddim).
In 2012 Skepta found himself at an impasse. He was integral in grime’s early hustle during the halcyon pirate radio days, but the music he was making, from 2008-2012 was soulless, kowtowing to a sanitized version of grime that went hand in hand with the slow-burning corporate ransacking of the genre that started with Dizzee Rascal’s breakthrough almost a decade earlier. He recently compared this dissatisfaction with his role in the mainstream with Britney Spears' infamous shaved head incident.
For many longtime grime fans in the UK, the music's rise in popularity at home and abroad has been somewhat bittersweet. This is arguably the most prominent grime has ever been, so how has there not been a great album since Dizzee Rascal's Boy In Da Corner? Released in 2003, that record was the first time many heard this style of beats and rhyme structures—13 years later, I would argue nothing has come close. For an album as hyped as Skepta's Konnichiwa, which has been teased since 2013, Boy In Da Corner feels like the only standard it needs to live up to.
Skepta is in limbo, an auspicious yet unnerving place where triumph and sacrifice pull relentlessly on either side of him. How are you supposed to feel when everything you've worked a decade for comes at a cost you may not be willing to even pay? Where do you go from there without being torn down the middle? It's been five years since the Tottenham-based grime artist released his last studio album and yet, the Boy Better Know-pioneer has recently found himself traveling the globe, establishing himself as the most revered hip-hop act to emerge from the UK in decades. While long-time BBK fans have anticipated the North London emcee's fourth studio LP for years, it wasn't until this past year that the mainstream music industry began to finally note the authenticity and energy submerged in UK street music and suddenly, grime faced a major international renaissance, fronted by Skepta and his furious ambition.
Surviving a rapid series of big highlights and perhaps even bigger wrecks during the early part of this decade, the lengthy process behind Konnichiwa afforded Skepta the opportunity to rediscover his creative core. The Tottenham native has been pivotal to the international appeal of grime since the foundation of Boy Better Know records over a decade ago. Following the release of 2011’s Doin’ It Again, Skepta was emanating so much heat that Diddy tapped the MC as a guide through the UK grime scene — a still burgeoning underground sound Stateside.
Konnichiwa is Skepta’s fourth studio album and is by far his most impactful in assisting the UK “really can rap” petition get its respect. The album accomplishes the task of showcasing the British grime style to a wider audience in a much more digestible fashion – contrary to his past underground projects. For those unfamiliar with the grime subgenre, simply put its short pocketed electric influenced beats with a slang ridden, pulsating street delivery.
“The purists might debate the name, but while they do that, crews around the world are uniting in this strong and fresh dance movement. ”– liner notes, Grime (Rephlex; 2004) Practically every time a new grime artist touches down here in the States, critical discussion will often tend to one of the following sides: this isn’t really a grime album, and/or this will totally blow up in America. After sometime, however, nobody — no matter how right or wrong — will even remember what the initial conversation was about and statements will be inevitably rebuked or reversed.
Though the current, dominant trend for album rollouts is to have them fall from the sky without warning, Skepta's Konnichiwa has been years in the making — it is, essentially, the capstone to his crucial career reboot. Recognized as a formidable grime producer, DJ and MC upon founding his crew/label Boy Better Know in 2005, a shift towards radio-friendly sounds that the genre took in the late oughts did little to garner Skepta's work commercial or critical acclaim. Down but not out, he shed his mainstream pop leanings with the release of "That's Not Me" and "It Ain't Safe" in 2014.
These are familiar themes – but brilliantly, ‘Konnichiwa’ is packed with surprises. It’s quintessentially British, a grime album to the core – but big and confident enough to feature a guest production and vocal from Pharrell Williams (see the bouncy ‘Numbers’, a witty two fingers to music industry sharks), or casually sample Queens Of The Stone Age on the broiling ‘Man (Gang)’.Best of all, it’s practically filler-free. Most grime albums get unstuck when they get sentimental, or approach the boudoir.
Grime’s recent exposure has given a forgotten youth a platform in the public eye to vent frustration and deflation in a refreshing and vital art form. Tottenham’s 33-year-old Skepta has naturally stepped up as the genre’s torch bearer and loudest voice - he’s an experienced and revitalised anti-hero’s hero, and Konnichiwa comes as his self-reflective and defining statement of disaffection. In his 1979 book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, media theorist Dick Hebdige details the three stages of subculture: firstly, its birth - members of a working class community rebel against mainstream norms.