If any grime MC can make the genre catch on in the USA, it’s Skepta.
Grime has long been anointed the next thing in American hip-hop. It’s a visceral, violent style of rap that originated in the UK with roots in bassy electronic garage music. But while MCs like Dizzee Rascal and Wiley have found niche audiences in America, the genre has yet to produce a crossover star that sticks with casual rap fans (Lady Sovereign doesn’t count).
If any grime MC can make the genre catch on in the United States, it’s Skepta – a brash, in-your-face lyricist who Drake fell so head over heels for that he got a tattoo of Skepta’s Boy Better Know label before eventually signing with them in February. That kind of co-sign carries huge weight in mainstream American hip-hop, and it means that Skepta’s fourth solo album, Konnichiwa, comes with the weight of trying to take a subgenre to whole new frontiers.
Luckily, Skepta is a self-assured artist who knows his own strengths. Nothing about Konnichiwa suggests an attempt at crossing over or tweaking the formula; if Skepta is going to become a fixture in the U.S. it will be by providing the public with the purest, most potent distillation of his art. Handling the majority of the production himself, Skepta ensures that Konnichiwa is the Mad Max: Fury Road of rap records: an unceasing, white-knuckle thrill ride that stamps down on the accelerator right when you expect it to ease up.
Single “Shutdown” has been out since April 2015, but it’s very much worth revisiting in the album context, where Skepta’s seething rage and hellbent mission to out impostors is even more arresting. “They try to steal my vision/ This ain’t a culture, it’s my religion/ God knows I don’t wanna go prison/ But if a man wanna try me, trust me listen,” he spits over horns and bass so guttural it gets difficult to tell them apart. “Lyrics” carries the torch of grime diss tracks, with Skepta taking aim at everyone and everything in sight. The bars aren’t punchlines in the traditional sense of American battle rap, but they’re delivered with such rancor that it’s hard to listen to the track without getting your feelings hurt.
Smartly, Skepta shies away from forced, headline-making collaborations, opting to keep the record provincial for the most part. Still, there a couple high-profile cameos from Pharrell and A$AP Nast, with the former filling his role better than the latter. Pharrell collaboration “Numbers” is bone-rattling; it’s what the Clipse would’ve sounded like if they’d been raised in north London instead of Virginia. The production is a perfect halfway point between Neptunes futuristic bravado and grime minimalism. Even though Skepta makes dated allusions to Charlie Sheen and Jaws, the song still feels fresh and current. “Ladies Hit Squad” is slower and woozier than much of Konnichiwa, injecting a bit of A$AP Mob waviness into the harsh grime noir. The Nast hook is a bit of a clunky fit, but the track finds its rhythm on the verses, where Skepta’s delivery mellows out for pretty much the only time on the album.
The 12 tracks may be a bit much to take in at once for grime newcomers – the genre isn’t really known for sonic diversity. But there’s nary a wasted moment on Konnichiwa, and Skepta’s decision not to tone down his brash personality for mainstream appeal is commendable. Whether or not we see Skepta become a star in the U.S., his latest record holds its own with some of the best hip-hop we’ve heard in 2016. To Skepta’s credit, and our benefit, he hardly seems concerned with the perks of stardom. He takes us through his long grind and eventual rise on “Corn on the Cob,” effectively promising to never let any level of success distract him from his mission. “Yeah, I don’t care about VIP/ I’ve got very important places to be/ While I’m asleep, I’m making a beat,” he stresses.