There is a subtle shift that takes place in an artist’s career between the release of a widely successful album and its highly anticipated follow-up, a shift in the relationship between the artist and their listeners. In the beginning, this relationship affects little of an artist’s creative direction – the latter has no readymade guarantee of a widespread audience, and the listener, blissfully unaware of what they’ve never come across, can place no burden onto it. The unknown artist is therefore free from the pressures of expectation, free to present themselves exactly as they are or as they want to be, to explore and experiment as they try to find the ‘sound’ which will propel their career on to the next level.
The follow-up album is, however, conceived under different conditions, for there is, all of a sudden, the question of reputation at stake. Unlike the first effort, the artist must now register – if only unconsciously – the anticipation of their listenership as they try to maintain that positive name their previous work has already established. Do they conform to expectations, supplicating the readymade audience with more of the same at the risk of sounding unadventurous? Or, do they break free from the chains of expectation, carving out a new route in the hope of artistic heroization, simultaneously shouldering the risk of becoming a laughable failure?
Nothing Great About Britain was – somewhat ironically – one of the greatest albums to come out of Britain in the latter years of the 2010s. On it, Slowthai painted a picture of Britain as an imperfect and unexceptional nation, smashing through the patriotic hubris that had accompanied much of the mainstream Brexit campaign with all its subtle hints towards the Empiric glories of the past. But Slowthai didn’t set out to write a political tirade, didactically addressing social ills with all the celebreality of a ‘conscious’ rapper. Instead, he succeeded in unveiling a general nationwide malaise by focussing his lens onto the emotions and experiences of a single individual – himself. On Nothing Great About Britain, Slowthai sounded multifaceted, a figure of many faces and personalities, and as a result each song, while never straying far from the experiences of the personal ‘I’, morphed into a depiction of something more universal, a series of symbolic portraits depicting a whole cast of British archetypes. There was the embittered drunk rampaging through the nightclub on ‘Doorman’: The track-suited hoodlum subverting quiet middle-English stereotypes on ‘T N Biscuits’: The everyman philosopher waxing lyrical from the comfort of his sofa on ‘Toaster’: The youngster stuck in circumstances they cannot circumvent on ‘Peace of Mind’: The secret romantic vowing to turn a new page on ‘Ladies’: The nihilistic drug pedaller convinced he’s fit for no other life on ‘Drug Dealer’: The victim of racial discrimination on ‘Rainbow’ – the list could go on. On each of these songs Slowthai was performing some version of himself, but he was also touching upon something bigger. By recounting his own experiences of growing up in destitution and being tempted down negative paths, he encapsulated the wider experiences of every small-town hustler, every frightened youth, every kitchen philosopher spouting wisdom with a zoot in hand. Each of these singular portraits combined to form an album-length tapestry that celebrated the flawed but recognizable personalities shaping the reality of modern Britain – a sort of ‘School of Athens’ where the Greek philosophers were supplanted with everyday working-class Brits.
But there is, arguably, some correlation between the growth of an artist’s fame and an increased self-reflexivity in their work. The cliché goes that you have your whole life to write your first album and only six months to write your second; and, like all clichés, this carries within it a number of profound truths. For instance, just what are you supposed to write about once your life has been inalterably changed with the coming of popularity and fame? It is a problem especially prevalent for artists held up as representations of the everyman, and in hip hop in particular, where success swaps the hard life of the streets for the glitz and glamour of material wealth, sacrificing everything the rapper’s lyrics once centred upon. It seems impossible that a celebrity figure could ever stand in for the universal; their lives appear so different from our own that they seem impossible to relate to, no matter how embarrassingly hard they try to bridge that gap. In such circumstances, when the world throws a spotlight onto you, drenching the rest of the world in shadows, what is there left to write about? What left, but to venture ever further into the mythologized self?
This is why for so many artists the second album can feel like a game of cat and mouse – they want desperately to reconnect with that original, pre-recognized self that brought them initial success, but all they can find is the newly successful, scrutinized and therefore overtly self-conscious celebrity. The experience of widespread recognition induces a sort of schizophrenia in which the artist is divided between the celebrated, media-generated ‘personality’, and the real, relatable individual forever lurking just outside the limelight. The dehumanising effect of celebrity means that real human beings morph into objects of curiosity for the rest of us, things to be analysed, gawped at, liked, disliked, discussed in the third person, but rarely interacted with. We talk about celebrities, not to them (though the rise of social media is changing this). And the thing is, most celebrities are aware of this, aware of the role that the media and consumptive public have created for them and expect them to play. Whether the goodie or the villain, the work they produce, subsequent to having become recognized, unconsciously labours either to confirm or subvert these expectations, but rarely to escape from them completely (if this is even possible). While the first album may have emerged as the untainted fruits of pure self-expression, the second becomes something far more complex as the artist, once holistic and totalized, tries to reconcile these two new aspects of themselves – the media-artifice of the celebrity, and the real individual they know themselves truly to be underneath.
On TYRON, Slowthai’s recently released follow up to Nothing Great About Britain, we hear this dichotomy play out as he wrestles with two aspects of himself – the ‘known’, confident exterior and the real, introspective and often insecure personality beneath. The theme of the split, double-sided individual is mirrored in a split, double-sided album, clearly a deliberated and therefore symbolic choice given that the work clocks in at only 35 minutes. If we are searching for a figure qualified to express the dualism of public persona and inner self, there can be none better in the current musical landscape than Slowthai. He’s always entertained a sort of dichotomy, at once the introspective, charming, loveable chap we see in interviews, but also the hostile, intimidating figure we hear on record. This interesting dualism is likely what made so many people take to Slowthai so quickly, and could only have added to the roaring success that Nothing Great About Britain enjoyed. The man was quickly adopted as a hero of modern Britain, as if he were some perfect being whose ugly sides existed only on record, but who in real life could no wrong. This of course came crashing down during the infamous incident at the NME awards last year, a night which played out like a Sophoclean tragedy of epic proportions. In the space of just a few hours, Slowthai was awarded Hero of the Year, engaged in leery drunken behaviour with comedian Katherine Ryan, was called out as a misogynist by audience members, and then, in a fit of rage, threw a bottle at one punter before being spectacularly carted away by security. It was the quintessential, self-contained trajectory that many a celebrity figure must go through –from zero to hero then back to zero again – only this time it happened over the course of a single night!
As far as album titles go, TYRON says everything it needs to off the mark. This is an album themed around identity, one that tries to uncover the real individual behind the public mask, to reconcile two dichotomous sides. From a debut album that seemed to concern itself with nothing less ambitious than the state of an entire nation, the focus on TYRON has narrowed to the point where we are now confronted solely with the experiences of a single individual. In contrast to his previous work which captured the universal, Slowthai’s lyrics – especially on the second disc – now feel claustrophobic, oppressively specific, as if we were listening to his diary entries. On the first disc we are confronted with the boisterous, self-assured Slowthai, while disc two explores the thoughtful, nostalgic, and depressive Slowthai, repentant and filled with doubts, the sad boy lurking beneath the hardened exterior of the bad boy. All of it, however, is Tyron, the real, imperfect individual, prone to mistakes he will later rue; sometimes loud, sometimes quiet; sometimes drunk, sometimes soberly calm; sometimes aggressive, sometimes boyishly charming.
Instrumentally-speaking, the first disc opens with a series of beats that reflect this hard-shelled exterior, revolving mostly around booming subs, rattling hi-hats and a lot of pitched-down vocal loops. As a case in point, opener ‘45 SMOKE’ sounds like something off an old Memphis mixtape, the disjointed keys, saturated background vocals and Thai’s unnerving childish babble converging to create an unsettlingly dark, horrorcore-inspired introduction. The fizzing rapidity of Slowthai’s staccato flows make him sound charged with an aggressive energy, his words sometimes spilling over the bars and crowding out the lines as if he is on a mission to push every single thought out of his overactive mind at once. He sprawls across the minor drones and rattling pitched-up snares of ‘VEX’ with unshakeable self-assurance, and on ‘WOT’ the intensity of his delivery and sheer arrogance of his lyrics are enough to mark this 48-second snippet of a track as a standout moment on the disc.
However, while there are a number of quality beats peppered throughout the first disc, I must admit to being let down by the mostly trap-inspired direction. There’s nothing here of the mad off-kilter rhythms that made my head swivel on ‘Nothing Great About Britain’, nor of the mosh-ready rap-punk of Mura Masa’s production on ‘Doorman’, for which Thai’s vocal delivery was so perfect suited. The first disc as a whole feels like it could have benefited from a degree of adventurousness or experimentation, both on the production and song-writing fronts. The Skepta-featuring single ‘CANCELLED’, for example, is clearly an indirect response to the NME debacle, but it lacks both nuance and maturity, providing zero insight into Slowthai’s mind and adding nothing to the debate surrounding cancel culture. Skepta’s verse is good, replete with clever puns, but his repetitive hook listing off all the reasons he’s too big to be cancelled (yes mate, we get you played the Pyramid Stage) does become tiring after the third run-through. ‘MAZZA’ is comparatively better, it’s hook a veritable earworm, with featured artist A$AP Rocky sounding as good as would be expected, neither defying nor disappointing expectations. The track has all the woozy lethargy of a Playboi Carti number, with Slowthai even ad libbing his way through sections of his verse; but the beat, while enjoyable, does lack variety, and might have benefited from the insertion of a breakdown or switch-up somewhere across its hyper-repetitive runtime.
Little by the little the first disc progresses from a place of untameable confidence into something darker and altogether more existential. ‘DEAD’ slows the pace down with a looping piano layered beneath an understated hook from Kwes Darko. The lyrics still sound self-assured, but far more nihilistic, with Slowthai’s voice drawling across the beat as if he’s spaced out but still ready for a fight. The vibe carves a path for the final track on disc one, ‘PLAY WITH FIRE’, which itself functions as a transitionary moment before we are introduced to the more sober second disc. The instrumental is less brutal than what we have come to expect, the tinny harpsicord-style arpeggios sounding more mournful than they do menacing. “My heart and mind are at war and my soul’s out here playing piggy in the middle”, Thai says, the beat slowing to a crawl, before a disembodied second voice interjects with the guidance, “Don’t be scared to be yourself.” This is the moment where we begin to see through the hard exterior the first disc has been trying to portray, and into the darkness of Slowthai’s frustrated and self-conscious, self-questioning mind.
Contrasting with the trap sounds that permeated the first disc, the second half opens with a classic, sample-driven hip hop instrumental on ‘i tried’, the pitched-up vocals and tinkling pianos reminiscent of something that might have come out on Rhymesayers back in the mid-00s. Two Kenny Beats credited songs follow which continue this less bombastic direction – ‘focus’ conveys an interesting enough message about how we always have a choice in where to focus our attentions, but ‘terms’, with its strong vocal hook from Dominic Fike detailing the pressures of fame and the downsides of constant scrutiny, is the more standout track. The introspection reaches it’s peak on ‘push’, featuring Deb Never, where the acoustic guitar arpeggios, dreamy chorus and sweetly nostalgic lyrics conjure a moment of quiet bliss, despite the hard-nosed tone of Slowthai’s lyrics.
But it’s on the next two tracks that this disc really comes into its own. The first, ‘nhs’, sees Thai in prime everyman philosopher mode, conveying a yin/yan message that we can only accept the good in life if we also acknowledge the bad, a moral that loosely reflects the theme of the album as a whole. The laidback and understated instrumental compliments the humility and quaintness of Thai’s delivery as he shouts out the “stone skimmers” and “day dreamers”, presenting us with a nostalgic image of dreamy childhood simplicity. The title itself seems mostly incidental, though the “Jack the lad, only happy when they clap” line cleverly parallels the hypocrisy of applauding a struggling health service while politicians backhandedly announce pay freezes, contrasting this with the experience of the celebrity figure who bases their entire self-worth on the fickle opinions of the general public. Following track ‘feel away’ carries this more nuanced approach forward, detailing the heart-breaking experience of seeing a relationship fall apart before your eyes. “Suddenly not half the man I used to be,” Thai raps wistfully, sounding calm but resigned, before James Blake’s scratchy voice is introduced, layering an extra level of beauty across the track’s central floating piano loop. “I leave the dent in my car / To remind me what I could have lost”, he sings, a beautiful image that feels both telling and elusive at the same time. The whole track conveys a general feeling of melancholy, perfectly encapsulating the helpless feeling of seeing things fall apart but recognizing there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
TYRON closes with the crackly, paranoic ‘adhd’, on which Slowthai comes across as both deflated and subdued. The tracks sounds like him addressing himself alone in his room while the rest of us stand at the door listening in, his lyrics telling a story of being trapped in a repetitive routine, of feeling isolated from those he loves. Midway through the beat falls away and we hear a recorded phone call where Tyron tells someone – his brother, potentially – that he loves him. It’s a tender moment, private, and it feels intrusive to be overhearing it; and yet, it still fails to signal any redemptive moment. The third and final verse bursts in, and Thai, all composure crumbling away, raps as if he has finally moved past his breaking-point. “My complexity be the death of me”, he spits in a recognizable showing of rage; only this time it’s inwardly directed, the opposite of self-assured and braggadocious. Still, this energy doesn’t last – the final few lines are delivered soberly, the last words “Fail to exit like I ain’t got a visa” cutting off anticlimactically, leaving us in the dark about the direction he takes from here. The nature of this ‘failed exit’ is unknown, but given the despondency of the preceding track it wouldn’t be hard to read in it the disquieting subtext of a failed suicide attempt. The album ends without closure, with no defining, transcendent moment where Slowthai can finally reconcile these two aspects of his personality, just recognition of their polarities.
But then, perhaps no reconciliation is possible, or even necessary. TYRON works well because it gives us two distinct and separate sides without ever attempting to merge them directly. Indeed, to do so would perhaps feel somewhat artificial, as if the brash public persona and the introspective inner self could ever be anything other than a contradiction, anything other than a dichotomy. And might we not ask ourselves, is such a contradiction really a problem? Is it not more fake to present ourselves as consistent, unchanging, holistic? In our modern world of media and artifice, all of us have a face we prepare for public consumption and a real self we hide away behind closed doors. Who’s to say we should ever want these two aspects to merge, to show the world exactly what we are really like inside the confines of our own heads, below the confident exterior we like to show off? Maybe the trick in accepting the split aspect of our personalities is to seek to find balance rather than integral wholeness? For by splitting the album so neatly into two, this is what Slowthai is doing – he is showing us that there are multiple sides to every story, multiple sides to every person; and, as the album’s title suggests, this complexity doesn’t stop us from being ourselves. On TYRON, it sounds like Slowthai is trying to find balance and space for each side of his personality to exist without one ever taking complete control. It’s about not straying too far into brash arrogance, but neither sacrificing his intensity and energetic side to introspection and melancholy alone. Whether he is successful in his attempts to find self-acceptance and a sense of personal balance, the album leaves it impossible to say. But we can be sure that if he continues to nourish all aspects of his personality, he will continually prove himself as one of the UK’s most interesting artists; not because he is perfect or free from making a tit of himself, but because of his ability to straddle oppositions, to show imperfections, to be less a one-dimensional celebrity and more a multi-dimensional, flawed human being, at times perhaps insufferable, but never anything less than real.