What does slowthai (aka Tyron Frampton) actually believe about nationalism and homeland?
There’s nothing great about Nothing Great About Britain, British ace slowthai’s debut album. While the 11-track LP has more than its fair share of fascinating moments, it’s no masterpiece. And the album’s lyrical content asks listeners to reexamine its title. What does slowthai (aka Tyron Frampton) actually believe about nationalism and homeland?
Nothing Great About Britain is a blaring firework of kinetic energy that appears in three modes: straight-up grime, rock and roll and hybrid Brit-dance. Each is brilliant in its own way. For grime, see the opening title track. Starting off with some haunting synthetic strings and flute, its beat unfurls in a thrilling barrage of lurching snare, hi-hat and general dissonance. For rock and roll, it’s difficult to choose between the acid rock of “Missing,” which relies on a swirling organ loop, and the amped-up alt-rock of “Doorman,” which plays as a more mosh-ready version of Blur’s “Song 2.” Both seem to have snarled into existence directly from the English soil. There’s also the enticing future garage of “Toaster” and the groaning trip-hop of “Crack,” probably the album’s catchiest and most quotable song.
But the LP’s energy often overwhelms Frampton’s delivery. It’s fun to hear slowthai try to keep up with the frazzling beats, but he’s not always particularly good at it. The title track beat swallows up his flow in one sitting, while Skepta has no trouble outshining him during his appearance on “Inglorious.” (Skepta’s “I’m directing movies like Gaspar/ I drive the wraith like it’s NASCAR” is one of the album’s most memorable lines.)
Moreover, the overall vibe plays up a traditional version of masculinity that relies on expected UK/US cultural references (A Clockwork Orange, The Sex Pistols, Inglourious Basterds, Chuck Norris, Trainspotting) instead of using its contents as an opportunity to implode received knowledge. Frampton is ready to call the queen a cunt and cleverly note that he’s “teabagging your favorite mug,” but this just seems like so much punk-inspired juvenilia. While there’s no doubt that punk or punk allusions can represent necessary forms of political protest, especially in the age of Brexit, our epoch has clarified the importance of critiquing yesteryear’s heroes and reframing forgotten or marginalized figures as icons. We’re already aware of Malcolm McDowell, Sid Vicious and Danny Boyle iconography from a slew of British hip-hop references, but what about artists like Derek Jarman or Rasheed Araeen or Shelagh Delaney and their equally phenomenal bodies of work?
Still, listeners should recognize that Frampton himself represents a figure that the UK is all too ready to marginalize. Having grown up in the housing projects of Northampton with a struggling mother and stepfather and having witnessed the bleak life of his drug-addicted uncle, slowthai provides us with a pressing reminder that Britain does not equal The Queen’s England. The gentlest, most affectionate representation of this is the album’s concluding track, “Northampton’s Child,” Frampton’s tribute to the backbreaking efforts of his mother to raise him well. “Mum took loans to make her home look nice/ Worked to the bone to put food on her side/ Clothes on the back and the shoes that we like/ Only one there when her brother’s on pipe,” he raps. The lines bear witness to working-class realities and communities that Frampton has insisted are at the core of Britain’s greatness.
There may be something great about Britain after all. Still, the album sends mixed messages about what it means to have a sense of national pride. Part of this seems purposeful—he loves his community and his country’s hip-hop scene but realizes that many of his fellow countrymen wouldn’t look his way twice, much less let him in the door—but part remains vague. Nothing Great About Britain is great at expressing a dizzying sort of (anti-)national pride, but the LP never quite puts its finger on new and newly inclusive ways of reimagining the nation.