Skepta is the bright star in the dark firmament of the British rap dialect grime. On the new album he pulls out all the rhyme stops.
Hoodie off for prayer: Skepta Photo: Boy Better Know
Skepta is not laughing. Yet the grime MC from north London would have some reasons to do so. In 2017 he won the Mercury Music Prize for his album "Konnichiwa," last year he had a global hit with A$AP Rocky. And in March, he became the father of a daughter. Sitting next to her stroller in the video for his new track "Bullet From A Gun," Skepta is in a London subway station. Next to him, a couple is making out, a woman is putting on makeup, and a young man is wrestled to the ground by two police officers. "It ain’t safe, even in a world full of cops," Skepta raps before heading back out in his luxury stroller.
"Bullet From A Gun" is textbook grime: a mix of kitchen-sink realism and ghetto fabulous fantasies, laced with London slang and dry humor. It is the most attractive identity offering British pop has produced this millennium. Grime was the music of those who grew up on the downside of London’s housing bubble in the noughties, building beats with cheap PCs in the nurseries of their council apartments.
Among them Skepta, real name Joseph Adenuga, his brother JME and sister Julie. That was about 15 years ago. Today, the three siblings sit in key spots on the British hip-hop scene. Julie hosts at Apple radio station Beats 1, JME met Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 during the election campaign after the Labour junior organization Momentum dug at him for months. At his meeting, he explained that the Labour leader had made him want to vote for the first time.
Regulars in the news
Skepta: "Ignorance is Bliss" (Boy Better Know/The Orchard).
Since then, grime MCs have been regular guests on British news programs, talking about mental health or the knife attacks among African British youth. Even top Conservative politician Matt Hancock felt compelled to declare Skepta one of his favorite musicians. And Skepta himself? He said, four months into the campaign, "Now politicians don’t give a shit about us again."
On his new album, "Ignorance Is Bliss," the London MC then refuses to embrace the social realist narrative. Instead, he sprinkles his work with references to the Afro-diaspora. Sometimes he quotes a verse from the golden era of US hip hop in the early 90s, sometimes his synthesizers sound like Detroit techno, another time he briefly pays reverence to Naija Pop from Nigeria – Nigerian pop star Wizkid also makes a brief guest appearance.
"Ignorance Is Bliss" locates Skepta’s hometown of London not in the British Isles, but in the middle of a transcontinental network that has existed since the first blacks crossed the English Channel in Roman times. But at the center of this network is the Afro-British underground dance scene, over which the 36-year-old artist watches like a godfather.
On the rocks
On "Love Me," Skepta raps on a 2-step beat about relationships gone to pieces, sharing verses with garage MC B Live, a familiar voice on London pirate radio. Then on "What Do You Mean?" London MC J Hus makes his appearance. The 24-year-old, who was injured in a knife attack as a teenager, was sentenced to prison in 2018 for illegal weapons possession – Skepta called for his release at the time.
"I made some mistakes that I gotta redeem," J Hus raps over a boom-bap beat before Skepta makes him part of his team. "Ignorance Is Bliss" draws its strength from the history of a subculture Skepta helped build, a symbol of an autonomy that can easily do without third-party recognition – partly because Skepta knows how fleeting it is.