Slowthai’s had a bizarre career trajectory. 2019’s banner debut Nothing Great About Britain set wheels in motion for the burgeoning Northampton rapper. It was nearly over before it began though, when several harebrained incidents occurred at the 2020 NME Awards.
Visibly intoxicated, Thai got mad at someone in the crowd while accepting his fan-voted Hero of the Year Award. At speeches’ end, he dropped his microphone off the stage above their head. When it came back at him a moment later, he upped the ante with a glass. That in and of itself is a very bad PR night, but that wasn’t all.
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Earlier in the night, he earned crowd chants of “misogynist” after a head-scratcher of a situation occurred with comedian Katherine Ryan. God knows what he was thinking, but Thai decided it’d be a not-at-all-fucking-awful idea to start inappropriately leering and jeering at the host. As ever, it wasn’t.
Sobered up the next day, he seemed genuinely remorseful for his actions online, claiming first that he wanted his award forwarding to Ryan, and then saying: “to any woman or man who saw a reflection of situations they’ve been in in those videos, i am sorry. i promise to do better” [sic].
Skip forward a month and lockdown begins. So there’s your lasting memory! We’re all a little too immersed in, you know, surviving to really give a shit what celebrities are up to. Anyway, knowing the legacy he’d left thus far, the young rapper spent the rest of the year’s duration quietly working on his second studio album, TYRON.
The record opens with ’45 SMOKE’, a reminder for/by slowthai, of exactly who he is and what he’s endured. Bursting out with “Rise and shine, let’s get it/ bomboclaat, dickhead”, you get an idea about his current self-opinion. He warms up by flowing through his history, ticking off these victories against a bad hand dealt and substance misadventure. By the refrain, he escapes the clutches of his foul mood… “the whole world is mine”.
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‘CANCELLED’ is a misfire. Thinking you’re too big and important to be made accountable for your actions is, considering pre-established context, multiple steps in the wrong direction. It’d be one thing for this brag-rap to exist purely in the posturing, hyperbolic land of hip-hop. This isn’t a hypothetical cancelling is it – this is a bite back at being justly criticised. It’s a shame it’s conceptually null, as there’s wonderful sonic scenery fitted to both Thai and guest feature Skepta’s verses.
At the other end of the functionality spectrum, ‘MAZZA’ is everything it’s trying to be. An inner monologue of maddening thoughts – almost like various characters or personas are attempting to seize the same brain in real time. The past is creeping in: “Feel to revert to my old ways/cricket tickets, wraps of cocaine/Sticky fingers, shoplifters/We got tools like Homebase”.
‘VEX’ is an experience that isn’t quite human. The pitch bent horror of the hook vocals are an instant grabber, in a grim fascination type of way. Everything on this track sounds watery, uncanny valley, distant from emotion. It sounds like it’s going to kill me. “People are, people are getting me vexed right now”. As the vocal clips and distorts, I see glowing red, mechanical eyes.
48 second cut ‘WOT’ is just getting going when it’s over. The electronic notes splashed at the core of the track sound like the congratulatory jingle of a half-broken slot machine. I really can’t get over these compositions. I’m impressed by the craftsmanship of marrying words to these maniacal rhythms, and ‘DEAD’ might actually be the very best example of that on the whole LP.
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Slowthai utilises the established, somewhat sedated auditory language of trap in order to be heard. He leaves nothing, you MUST follow him. “Take away my loved ones, you will never take the light, that shines inside my heart and makes me real by design/When it’s ugly – change for money, see that they ain’t got no spine/People change for money, what’s money with no time?” Kwes Darko’s disconcerting affirmations on the hook also make for a Side A standout. Knowing some of the singles to come on Side B already, I’m holding out for a total pace change following ‘PLAY WITH FIRE’.
The title denotes entertaining bad ideas and the paths those can lead to. “Full moon, put me in a corner, have me swingin’ with a pool cue, I do this for them broke youts/No money in the lunchroom, my brothers in the magistrates/All they know is slangin’ weight and bangin’ til their knuckles break”. We move away from the mindless anger of the project’s first half. I’m much more excited for something with a bit more meat on it now.
On ‘i tried’, Thai opens up on his ongoing mental health struggles, thoughts of suicide and war with expectation. The key sample, the late Trey Gruber’s track of the same name, fits right into this (surprisingly) sunny blend of jazzy lo-fi. Maybe meant to serve as some recess for the topics of discussion, I hear a dash of Flower Boy-era Tyler, the Creator in the assembly. That’s a tick.
I see James Blake’s name in the writing credits for ‘focus’, and upon hearing, must assume that’s his voice warbling around the mix. Either way, this soundscape is incredibly rich and I can’t say enough about Kenny Beats’ ambition. Slowthai described the mindset of the track to Apple Music, saying “You either get a trade or you end up doing shit and potentially you end in jail. A lot of people around me, they’re still in that cycle. And this is me saying’ ‘Focus on some other shit'”.
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‘terms’ wears its American influences on its sleeve, and I don’t mean the features. The song debates the catches and clauses of fame, an idea I’ve heard explored rather a lot in recent years from that side of the pond. This time, there’s no interesting storytelling purpose or subversion at play when the trap stylings return. This one’s fine, perhaps a little weak following the last two tracks. I imagine Denzel Curry’s billing and subsequent lack of verse will go down a treat online.
Promising up-and-comer Deb Never will sing you in and out of ‘push’, the outward heartstrings track of TYRON. Assessing the quality of links within his life, Slowthai tries to grasp what or who it is that’s blocking his full potential. “I grew up ’round toxic, and people can’t see, ’cause they live in a pond with some dumb fish”.
The childlike charm of ‘nhs’ extends beyond the chorus imagery of Simon Says, and that age old parental comeback about jumping off a cliff if your friends did (or in this case, if Tyron did). Thai makes cases for the two sides of a lot of coins, (what is X without Y, etc.) actively pushing you to think through how appreciation works. Moreover, the fault of the human brain in its constant need for more or better. The loose example of only clapping for the NHS now is a pretty compelling case study for the Hedonic treadmill.
‘feel away’ grapples with the end of a relationship, by reconstructing some of the problems that lead to that conclusion. It’s about trying to look from inside the mind of your partner. It’s exploring how you may have come across in those moments of tension. James Blake’s silky vocals are undoubtedly on this one, and his and Thai’s sections ultimately meshing together are your emotional pay-off.
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Despondent chords and murmurs of this being “the last one” introduce us to ‘adhd’. There’s two verses of contemplation; whether or not things would be different in Tyron’s life if anyone had identified his mental illness early on, whether any of his pattern behaviour serves him, if anyone even cares. This is the Slowthai content I can’t get enough of. I love the truly introspective, articulate artist at the centre of his duality. The tongue-out madman schtick wouldn’t separate him from any contemporary on its own merit. His heart is foundational to the works’ quality. Finally, we have one last combustion. “Mind complexity be the death of me/Heavy weaponry at my melon, squeezed/I got tendencies, psycho tendencies/Touch me tenderly, Heaven, let me in”.
TYRON really is a tale of two halves, used to stunning narrative ends. The ‘man behind the man’ only speaking up above his alter-ego on the second side makes for a strong dynamic. Cynically, I was rather expecting a damage control record of super marketable, standalone “bangers”. Potentially ONLY previous singles ‘feel away’ and ‘nhs’ as impassioned exceptions. I’m glad that’s not the case. Instead, I got an incredibly well thought-out and expertly sequenced full vision of an LP.
TYRON is out now.