Skepta stands as global ambassador for grime
“A bunch of young men all dressed in black, dancing extremely aggressively on stage. It made me feel so intimidated and it’s just not what I expect to see on primetime TV.”
On the most pompous of occasions, Kanye West’s performance at the 2015 Brit Awards seemed to bring the London riots onstage with him. With the eyes of the world watching, West crouched under a flamethrower and yelled “Yo Skepta, thank you!” While London natives are more than familiar with local hip-hop collective Boy Better Know (BBK), the shoutout seemed to bring the entire British grime genre out of the darkness for the Western market. Less than a year later, Skepta became one of the most hyped “new” rappers for listeners in the States following Drake’s cosign,
Though Skepta obviously isn’t Japanese, Konnichiwa’s namesake is particularly fitting. With more media coverage than he ever had in his career, the opportunity was there for him to sell out and alter his sound for the world stage. Instead, Konnichiwa is uncompromising, authentic and relentless; the album is a fantastic representation of the UK grime scene’s short but rich history. While hip-hop culture becomes increasingly international and appropriated in various corners of the world, Konnichiwa stands as a fixed, indigenous representation of a genre and culture that’s making its way West.
The confrontational, self-titled intro totally does away with the notion of catering to listeners who think this is his debut: “By now you should know I hate waitin’ / I got no patience.” The intro segues from tranquil female vocals to jarring police sirens and classic grime synths; he barks like a man who knows the world is watching but is just excited for the chance to be unlike anything ever seen. Every now and then an artist will tap into some sort of higher state of being, and you get that feeling when Skepta snaps “Boy better know man went to the Brits on a train / … / Man shutdown Wireless, and then I walked home in the rain / Then we took it back to Africa, ask Wiz Kid, I can’t explain”.
Grime obviously channels the same braggadocious inner-city spirit as hip hop in the States, but Skepta’s snarl is more indicative of someone genuinely at the top of his or her game. For one, Konnichiwa is paced shockingly well; the album has a clear arc to it, with a climax that rattles your skull when “Man”, “Shutdown”, and “That’s Not Me” appear consecutively in the latter half. Skepta’s the first internationally acclaimed grime MC, and this inherently makes everything he touches incredibly unique.
Wily makes an appearance on “Corn on the Curb,” telling a story that only an East London MC can: “I was there back in the day when it was Garage / and them man said they wanna get rid of MCs / But them man couldn’t get rid of MCs / Cause since then, we have become bigger MCs.” Skepta brags about bringing his friend onstage with Drake for his birthday — a flex he could not have made one year ago. His ascension to the world stage as an ambassador for grime has given him a truly novel arsenal of material to draw from.
ASAP Mob affiliates ASAP Bari and ASAP Nast make appearances on the album, providing a more Americanized approach on “It Ain’t Safe” and “Ladies Hit Squad.” While the video and hook for “It Ain’t Safe” are clearly influenced by American hip-hop culture, the distinctive grime synth remains a fixed presence. Transatlantic hip-hop collaborations are generally hit or miss, but all of the American collaborators on Konnichiwa (including Pharrell Williams) assimilate smoothly into the grime soundscape.
On “Man,” Skepta hilariously dismisses fake friends with “I don’t know why man calling me family all of a sudden / Like hmm, my mum don’t know your mum / Stop telling man you’re my cousi” Songs like this implicitly shed light on his relationship with Drake, who’s touched on the difficulty of letting people in more times than we can count. Yet Skepta’s ascension to the top has been much more accelerated, and he delivers his blows without letting you down softly. “Man” reinforces his “us vs. the world” ethos with much more aggression and wit than a Meek Mill meme.
Drake actually makes a fleeting appearance at the beginning of “Shutdown” with an arguably fake Caribbean accent, but it adds to the tongue-in-cheek tone of grime punchlines. Little is known about their relationship, but it sometimes feels like some sort of corporate merger for entrance into a new market. Skepta’s brash authenticity has characterized his entire career, but Drake’s recent transition into business mogul automatically raises question marks regarding motives. Regardless of Skepta’s position to cash out on the buzz surrounding London’s hip-hop scene, he made the album he wanted to make, and that’s what makes Konnichiwa important for the grime culture worldwide.
“That’s Not Me”, the album’s standout track, features Skepta’s biological brother Jme. No shady features, no inorganic buzz; just him and his “mates” doing their rapping “ting.” A bubbly synth bounces around unpredictably and never really settles in one place; the song has a frantic energy that rests in a perpetual state of flux. Skepta has this habit of sounding pissed off in songs that still make you smile, and his bravado peaks as he trades verses with Jme.
Where it’s unclear if Drake uses Toronto as a genuine muse or gimmicky marketing ploy, the frenetic energy of London is clearly the lifeblood of Konnichiwa. Even the physical copies are packaged as letters, stamped from London, designed to be shared all around the world. Rather than shapeshift to match the expectations of unfamiliar faces, the album stays firm to its roots and history. It’s less of a mailed advertisement and more of a postcard. It gives us all a peek into an unknown but bustling youth culture, and Skepta dutifully takes that responsibility in stride.