For as much as we pit the East Coast against the West Coast, or the South vs. everybody else, the one thing American hip-hop fans all agree on is that we only want to listen to American hip-hop. We like our whips foreign, but all our rappers are homemade.
There’s never been a rapper from England (or any other non North American country, actually) who's been able to have any sustained impact in the U.S. Dizzee Rascal had a moment, Tinie Tempah had a moment, Lady Sovereign was a thing, there are a few other examples, but none lasted in the American consciousness, none truly invaded out shores.
Is it the accent? Are we just xenophobic? I don’t have the answers, but I do know it’s fascinating. While you can have a successful career as an international rapper, until you make it in the same nation that birthed the Baconator and hip-hop, you really can’t be considered an elite rapper. That’s where Skepta comes in.
Grime feels like it's making some real in-roads here, and with a Drake co-sign that's placed a spotlight on his new album it could mean Skepta is well on his way to becoming the first English rapper to make it Stateside, but he has a lot of work to do. For many, myself included, Konnichiwa will be the first real introduction into the UK’s buzzing rap scene, which makes me perfectly positioned to write this review.
If Skepta is going to succeed here he needs to pull in fans from beyond the niche Americans who already follow Grime. He's going to have to make believers out of the curious, red blooded, Rocky-loving ‘muricans like me. This is the the big test, can he do it? Let’s find out.
Up-down-left-right-a-b-select-start. It’s time for a cheat code album review. Everything you need to know about the album as fast as possible.
"Lyrics" (ft. Novelist)
An absolute showstopper for all the right reasons, I paused this record mid-listen and immediately plugged it into my big ass speakers. From what I’m told, the live show is a big part of Grime’s appeal. If that’s the case "Lyrics" is sure to be amazing in person. It's the perfect balance between a big, gut-punch and minimalism, which creates this truly menacing feel. Plus, that tiny sample that sounds kind of like a wrench is dynamic.
The track also hosts one of Skpeta’s more convincing performances. He’s crisp and unapologetic, but still manages to be convincingly charismatic. Also, I’m digging guest feature artist Novelist. I feel confident saying most general hip-hop fans will dig this.
"It Ain’t Safe" (ft. Young Lord)
Maybe it’s my own fault for building him up too much, hoping for a super cutting edge emcee that would give me something I'd never heard before, but this is basically just a Three 6 Mafia song. "It Ain't Safe" sounds like a bonus cut off When the Smoke Clears. Shit, Skepta even uses a Juicy J type flow.
I don’t hate the record, it’s arguably a forgettable track, but it felt Cheat Code worthy because it was the moment I realized that maybe Skepta's not so different after all? Maybe he's not so different from most mainstream, American rappers; he just has an accent.
If Skepta is going to truly make it in America (no Eddie Murphy), he’s going to need that liquor-doused club tune that gets the people on the dance floor. I think that’s what he is attempting to do here - I also think he fails. The wavy, shimmering beat, the suspiciously Drake-ish hook from Nast, the snog-friendly bars from Skepta, it all screams “bang this in the club.” If you're into vibed out party tunes this might just make you want to grab another pint, but the song just doesn’t ever hit. Again, aside from his accent, this is the type of song we've been hearing for years. I don't see this being the song that gives Skepta his first global hit.
“Numbers” (ft. Pharrell Williams)
Yo! This shit right here? The beat is fit as fuck. It's hard to believe this track was birthed by the same man who created “Happy.” I absolutely love it. The sleuthing atmosphere, the chest-denting bass and that cool breathy effect are layered perfectly. I can hear Pusha T salivating over this one. As for Skepta, this is his best work by far. Too often I felt like he wasn’t working with the beat, trying to fit so many words into one bar he couldn’t really find a pocket. He can rap but doesn’t always flow. Here, he really used timing and space. He custom-fitted his sound for the beat and it hits on every level. This is the best song off the album and might just be one of the best records of 2016. If Skepta catches on, this is the spark that lit the match.
This is the sound some think will finally break down borders? There aren’t too many moments where I heard a superstar performing. I feel like the first rapper to really cross over has to do it on a mainstream level, and at the same time I don’t hear enough depth and lyrical prowess to see Skepta connecting with the devout purists. He’s in this middle ground where he’s good, but the thing truly separating him from all the other good rappers is his accent. There’s definitely room for him between our coasts, I'll personally welcome him ashore, but I think he will have a hard time becoming the trailblazer that I initially thought he could become.
Skepta’s music is like soccer to Americans. There’s a small percentage of us who will really love it, there’s a percentage who will over-hype it because it’s different and foreign, but the vast majority of us will find our attention drifting and never to return. We'll check it out when it’s the World Cup (or when there's a Pharrell feature), get into it, cheer our hearts out, but a month later we're not still invested. People have been saying soccer (and Grime) will the next big thing here for years, and while moderately popular, it never seems to hit at that next level.
It’s still early, and I'm not ready to close the door on his future, but for now consider me Skeptical.