Back in 2003, UK rapper Dizzee Rascal introduced Grime to the mainstream hip-hop scene with his Mercury Prize-winning debut, Boy in da Corner – an album that I still hold close to my heart. The explosive electronic production supported his undeniably excellent flow, ultimately creating an album that felt fresh and important.
To be honest, Dizzee Rascal is the only Grime rapper who I’ve ever really paid attention to. It’s not a preferential matter, mind you. It’s just that Grime still belongs to a niche community that I haven’t really found the time to investigate further. Imagine my surprise when Konnichiwa, the new record from long-time English rapper Skepta, picked up immense attention here in the U.S. Upon first listen, a feeling arose inside me – a feeling similar to the one I had when I heard Boy in da Corner for the first time.
It seems as if the album’s title alludes to branching out into mainstream success and this title track starts things off with zero frills. The way he handles the song’s topic regarding touring and fame is an exemplary reminder that Skepta is a lyricist who works best when he’s direct with his audience. There are no head-scratchers on this album and that’s not the point. Instead, the music serves as a platform for Skepta to vent his thoughts.
Occasionally, Skepta presents us with an infectious hook, like on the song “Lyrics.” Filled with braggadocio, it’s an acknowledgedly fun song for an album filled with nods to a violent lifestyle. The minimalist use of percussion and a vocal sample also works well in the album’s favor, acting as a sort of appetizer for the harder tracks to come later. We don’t have to wait long for a banger though, as “Crime Riddim” is just one of the bone-rattling cuts on the record. With heavy bass and a nice variety of synth melodies, the production complements the dark tone of the lyrics. One line in particular, comparing strip searches to Chippendales, is a refreshing bit of dark humor that doesn’t make things feel overly serious.
“It Ain’t Safe,” possibly the best song on this album, is one of the catchier songs I’ve heard this year. Young Lord’s contribution to the hook is almost guaranteed to stay stuck in your head the instant it kicks in. Though I personally think Skepta’s talent is most evident when he raps on top of fast-paced instrumentals, he still manages to sound angry while spitting at a leisurely tempo on this track. Unfortunately, this album highlight is followed by the worst song on the track list – “Ladies Hit Squad.” The chorus is painfully obnoxious and the instrumental is too atmospheric for its own good. I don’t hate Skepta’s verse, but the song’s “romantic” nature just feels out of place for an album as focused and punchy as this one.
Of all the features Skepta could’ve acquired, Pharrell Williams is quite possibly one of the strangest. The instrumental, along with Pharrell’s verse, sounds like classic Neptunes fare. As a result, it’s a song that both works and doesn’t. It’s certainly catchy and proves that Skepta has versatility, but Pharrell’s contribution feels a bit corny at times.
Konnichiwa‘s final act is a rollercoaster ride of bangers. “Man” is a brilliant fusion of trap-like drums and nutty horn and synth textures. Skepta himself has some serious bars on here as well, riding the instrumental insanity with confidence. “That’s Not Me” manages to condemn plenty of prominent tropes of the genre.
“Sex any girl? Nah, that’s not me
Lips any girl? Nah, that’s not me
Yeah, I used to wear Gucci
I put it all in the bin cause that’s not me”
“Text Me Back” may be too sentimental for some, but it almost feels like a necessary way to conclude the record. It’s all about Skepta reminding himself of his roots and promising to return home despite the rapid growth of his fame. As mentioned earlier, Skepta is not one for obtuse lyricism. For better or worse, he says what’s on his mind. The blunt nature of these songs may not win some people over, but it seems as though Grime has rarely been about lyrics to begin with. Like Dizzee Rascal, Skepta is simply talented at rapping, even if what he says has been said before. With impressive flows and colorful production, Konnichiwa hits far more than it misses. It will surely please even the most jaded of Grime fans while earning plenty of new ones along the way.