It’s beginning to feel like Tempah is something of a man without a country.
Since Tinie Tempah broke onto the scene with “Pass Out” in the U.K. and the far inferior “Written in the Stars” in the States, British rap has earned itself a spot on the global music stage. MCs like Skepta, Stormzy, and Wiley have all achieved widespread success and resonated with rap diehards in a way that Tempah hasn’t quite managed. Unlike these artists, Tempah never trafficked in grime, opting for a less confrontational sonic palette that is influenced by EDM and geared towards pop crossover success. His third LP, Youth<,em>, has its share of inevitable hits, but with the rise of grime it’s beginning to feel like Tempah is something of a man without a country.
“Not For the Radio,” Tempah’s collaboration with MNEK, is perhaps knowingly ironic. The song’s dramatic hook and oscillating synths are perfectly suited for today’s charts. Its message about being too real for a pop audience, punctuated by MNEK’s theatrical hook (he seems to have set his sights on being England’s top post-Sam Smith belter) is also fitting fodder for crossover play.
Afropop singer Wizkid provides the hook on “Mamacita,” a generic tropical cut that feels so calculated it makes those “Find Your Beach” Corona commercials seem like genuine art. The Tinashe collaboration “Text From Your Ex,” fares better. Though thematically quite similar to “Mamacita” Tempah finds an engaging comfort zone riding the song’s house synth stabs and Miami bass influence.
While grime lyricists focus on gritty day-in-the-life snapshots or outlandish boasts, Tempah’s bars increasingly feel edgeless and trite. Sure, he throws in a nominal bit of profanity and plenty of rapper lifestyle clichés, but there are times where his rhymes veer into cornball Will Smith territory. “Tell J.K. that I’m still rollin’/ Yeah, tell Russell I’m a brand,<,em>” he raps on “Girls Like,” closing the verse with another line that would make Skepta kiss his teeth in dismay: “I could make a honey give away her last Rolo.<,em>”
Grime has become a global commodity after more than a decade of steadfast provincialism thanks in part to Drake, Kanye West and Pharrell. Tempah has fully embraced this global sound, reflected in a guest list that includes fellow U.K. MCs Stefflon Don and Bugzy Malone, Nordic pop star Zara Larsson, rising indie folk act Jake Bugg and Australian soul superstar Guy Sebastian, just to name a few. The revolving cast keeps your head on a swivel, though it also does make the album feel unanchored, and the standard format (Tempah provides the verses, Guest Singer X provides the hook) grows stale over the dozen or so tracks that utilize it.
Sometimes the album’s diversity works, like on the swaggering posse of “They Don’t Know,” a palatable cut that features an impressive turn by Stefflon Don. Elsewhere, it makes Tempah sound out of place, even as a skilled pop rapper. “Girls Like,” an up-tempo, four-on-the-floor dance track sounds like a Pitbull B-side. The Jess Glynne collaboration “Not Letting Go,” which reached No. 1 on the U.K. charts, feels more natural. Tempah’s rhymes sound less boxed-in by the percussion, and the record feels less cynically reverse engineered than many of the record’s would-be singles, although Glynne’s belting on the hook does threaten to sink the song at times.
Tempah isn’t exactly grime counter-programming (he offers his spin on the genre with “Holy Moly” and “Something Special”), and while Youth<,em> features a few instances of quality pop-rap his singles often feel more inescapable than infectious. He’s far from irrelevant; Youth<,em> debuted at No. 9 in the U.K., and in addition to “Not Letting Go,” “Girls Like” also charted in the top five. But it’s easy to picture him going the way of American rappers like Ludacris and Nelly, who banked chart success while the pulse of hip-hop moved further and further away from the style of music they made.