UK rapper slowthai polishes his genre-blending brand of hip hop on a soul-searching double album that looks inwards and thrashes outwards in equal measure.
When music journalists refer to "difficult second albums" they are generally referring to the challenges that arise when artists attempt to replicate the impact of their first impression. As first impressions go, Tyron Frampton’s was seismic. On his 2018 breakout single T N Biscuits, slowthai introduced himself to the hip hop world with the plainly stated couplet: “Drug dealer / I wear Nike not Fila,” a bar that is representative of the gritty, dangerous and unequivocal lyricism that fired up the hype machine for his debut album Nothing Great About Britain.
Alongside a handful of incredible songs, Ty’s reputation for raucous live shows, a cantankerous punk ethic and a propensity for acts of outlandish political dissidence earned him favourable comparisons with figures ranging from Dizzee Rascal to Johnny Rotten. The most common comparison that his chronicles of bleak everyday Britain draw, though, is with Mike Skinner of The Streets, whose razor-sharp realism Nothing Great About Britain undoubtedly emulates.
Music journos have placed slowthai on the shoulders of giants of the British canon, and following up a record that has garnered such high praise seems an unenviable task. Let’s be clear though – Ty has had no difficulties with his music on TYRON – this is a masterfully crafted album. The operative difficulties in slowthai’s "difficult second album" are his own personal challenges, which are plain for every listener to hear from the record’s get-go. Struggling with addiction, depression, and an identity crisis that followed the public backlash from his controversial appearance at last year’s NME awards ceremony, slowthai has been embattled from the inside and out since his meteoric rise to fame.
The product of this period of introspection is TYRON, which, as its title suggests, is a deeply personal record. To leave it at that, though, would be an understatement: this is an unabating act of self-dissection. The record is loosely conceptual in its structure, split into two halves which deal with his hard rage and soft melancholy respectively. Whilst his debut also showcased an impressive emotional range, by juxtaposing his steeliness so starkly with his vulnerability on TYRON, slowthai emphasises each side of himself to even greater effect here.
The first half is full of tracks that are ostentatious, confrontational and ultraviolent, both lyrically and instrumentally. Ty burns through a set of seven sinister bangers, blending grime, drill and trap styles, all filtered through his hardcore punk snarl. Musically, it’s all ribcage-rattling basslines, tight snare-trills, and inebriated synth loops – a mix that leaves the listener disoriented. Not one to waste time getting to the point, Ty jumps right out the traps like a greyhound baring its teeth, as opener 45 SMOKE begins with the line: “Rise and shine, let’s get it / Bumbaclart, dickhead, bumbaclart, dickhead.” Strong first impressions again here...
Next comes single CANCELLED featuring Skepta, a track that was a big talking point on release, and one that is no doubt a response to the now-infamous altercation between slowthai and Katherine Ryan at the 2020 NME awards. It was a bad night for Ty, to be sure. He made some pretty cringeworthy and misogynistic comments to Ryan, and subsequently jumped off the stage to start a fight with a crowd member – all on a night where was awarded "Hero of the Year'' by the NME for his progressive political music. A Twitter mob was calling for his head after the video footage surfaced, and in the cold light of day Ty quickly reached out to Ryan and apologised to her, writing that his attempts to engage comically with her had gone badly wrong.
Despite Ryan’s forgiving correspondence which sympathetically suggested that the backlash he received would amount to little more than a “bad day on social media”, the sustained flak which Ty received sent him into a spiral of guilt and paranoia. “I was going through a dark time and I didn’t really know who to trust,” he recounted in a recent interview with Anthony Fantano. It was at this point that Skepta – who co-wrote the track – became a crucial confidant for slowthai. “He pulled me out,” Ty suggests. The north-London rapper urged him not to see it as a defining moment, to learn from the experience and to channel his negative energy creatively, with his chin up and his chest out. “I think people associate the song with the NME awards, but it’s not about that,” he clarifies, “it’s aimed at people who our whole lives had told us we couldn’t be something … they’ve been trying to cancel me my whole life.”
VEX, the record’s fourth track, touches on this subject a little more, with Ty pointing the finger outwards to the figures of oppression that have hemmed and shaped him: “If my attitude’s poison, it’s because of you.” This line appears amidst the record’s most aggressive moments, sandwiched between posturing refrains about rage-fuelled gang violence. In his attempts to exorcise some demons by tracking them to their source, Ty searches his soul but still finds himself locked in a cycle of bad habits. The drug-hazed banger MAZZA sees Ty “Feel to revert to his old ways'' in a fit of nihilism, whilst the brooding conclusion to the trip-hop-infused PLAY WITH FIRE transforms into a downbeat cacophony of anxious overlain voices. The effect is dizzying, and it’s one that Ty likens to having his “head in a blender”. The abrupt change in tempo and tack on this track’s second half signposts the transition from Side A to Side B of TYRON, where we see Kwes Darko’s production soften and Ty’s defences begin to drop.
We begin the second half with Ty in a black hole on i tried, a tune that takes inspiration from the soulful production of groups like BROCKHAMPTON, as well as from cloud rap artists like Lil Peep who readily blend hip hop with elements of emo music. The pulsating bass lines are here replaced by gentle guitar samples set against downcast pitch-shifted vocals that murmur the refrain “I tried to die / I tried to take my life”. Ty has previously stated that he always vies to avoid metaphors in favour of saying things as they are, so we receive his full, unabridged despondence on tracks like these, for better or worse.
The next three tracks continue in a similar vein too, beginning with focus, another downtempo tune, this time with Gorillaz-esque inflections on the beat. Here we bear witness as Ty yearns for simpler times filled with family and friends, but we watch as he consoles himself, trying to remain mindful and focused as he attempts to “make it out the rubble”. Solid features from Dominic Fike and Denzel Curry follow on terms. The hook on this track reads like a modern Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, as Ty wishes that people could empathise with him, but he acquiescently settles himself with the fact that people twist his words. On the next track, push, my patience with TYRON’s softer side begins to wear a little thin. The fragile voice and fingerpicked guitar of feature Deb Never are quite pretty in their own right, if a little on-the-nose. But when Ty eventually begins to rap over it - perhaps it’s something about his flow or the especially prevalent "hard man’s softer side" affectation - I can’t help but think of ungodly Noughties grime-pop from the likes of Chipmunk or Devlin.
Thankfully, TYRON concludes with a run of three of the record’s strongest efforts, beginning with single nhs, which is slowthai’s most concerted attempt at a happy song to date. The production is ethereal and dreamy with another pitch-shifted refrain set against peaceful piano chords and a minimal beat that floats out to sea. Lyrically, Ty fully indulges in clichés as he appeals to the insecurities of his listeners, urging them to quit striving for perfection. “You will always be chubby if you suck in your tummy, when you’re staring at the mirror / In your eyes you kill the flicker, serial killer,” he posits thoughtfully, in a bar that is reminiscent of the powerful concluding passages in David Foster Wallace’s famous This is Water speech. “Such a fucking happy song,” Ty ad-libs in his idiosyncratic drawl, seemingly finding solace for the first time on the record.
James Blake and Mount Kimbie then pop up on lead single and album highpoint feel away, on which Ty pensively walks through a past breakup, backed elegantly by echoing synth chords soaked in reverb. It’s worth mentioning the zany, psychedelic video for this track which sees Ty giving birth in hospital whilst cutting himself up like cake, offering servings to all the midwives. It simultaneously showcases his strong aesthetic vision and irreverent humour at their very best.
We finish with adhd which is Ty’s favourite moment on the record, but is equally the album’s most vulnerable cut. As an album closer, it’s conceptually reminiscent of the downtrodden revelations in Stay Positive from The Streets’ seminal Original Pirate Material, whilst the drearily looped piano chords and mental health angle remind me of Bathed in Grey from King Krule’s 6 Feet Beneath the Moon. We burn through moments of self-dissection at a rapid speed, interluded by a skit which sees Ty on the phone, expressing his love for a friend in what sounds a little like a final goodbye. “I’ve got tendencies, psycho tendencies / Touch me tenderly, heaven let me in,” he screams in the track’s impactful final twist. Tellingly, though, he quickly follows these cries with a cheeky kiss-kiss before the record abruptly ends, implying that things aren’t all as serious as they seem.
Whilst slowthai exorcises many a demon on TYRON, adhd shows just how difficult he finds breaking loose of his chaotic cycles. One thing that’s certain though is that Ty won’t fail to break the mould wherever his music is concerned. On his difficult second album, he takes on a number of new aesthetics, voices and techniques and, for the most part, executes them all with controlled finesse. Acknowledging the enjoyment he takes from transcending genres so freely in a recent interview, Ty looks forward to his future experimentations, suggesting: “The next album’s gonna be nothing like this.” As TYRON soars its way up the UK album charts to Number 1, let’s hope that slowthai finally manages to put some of his demons to bed. But here’s hoping also that his music and art never lose the sense of wild and captivating chaos that we’ve come to expect.
Overall Rating: 8/10
Top Track: feel away (feat James Blake & Mount Kimbie)
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