Back in 2003, grime was supposed to be huge. It was going to cross the Atlantic, and change the face of UK music forever. Obviously, that never really happened, but recently, thanks to renewed activity, and interest from American stars like Drake and Kanye West, grime seems to have finally gotten around to fulfilling its initial promise. Skepta has been at the centre of the resurgence more than any other MC, and Konnichiwa feels like something of a flashpoint for the movement, a summary of what has come before, whilst also pushing the genre into new places.
One of the most impressive things about the album, is how much of the production Skepta handles himself. He’s the sole producer on 6 of the album’s 12 tracks, and has co-production credits on 3 more. His style is dark and minimal, without ever sounding cheap. Lead single That’s Not Me (featuring JME, Skepta’s little brother) is built around synths that sound like water, and a brassy bassline. No one element of the track sounds especially impressive, but collectively it creates a foreboding atmosphere for the brothers to charismatically rap over.
The least successful parts of the album come about when Skepta tries to imitate a style not from his homeland. Ladies Hit Squad feels very similar to the Noah “40” Shebib-influenced Toronto scene, with off-key singing from A$AP Nast, and swirling lullaby synths. A similar result is found on the Pharell-produced Numbers. The funk-laced beat just feels out of place on an otherwise-dark album, and Pharell’s vocal contributions are easily the worst of the record – “my accountant counting my cabbage, also counting my carrots”. However, one thing that stands out on both tracks, is that even when the song surrounding him isn’t great, Skepta himself is an electrifying presence.
As an flowing rapper, and as a lyricist, Skepta is easily one of the best artists in his field. Throughout the album, he talks about his loyalty to the grime scene (and has a few barbs for Dizzee Rascal for leaving it) – “when I get through I’mma bring my dargs / 2 by 2, man a walk on the ark” – foreigners attempting to co-opt the style of grime – “they tryna steal my vision / this ain’t a culture, it’s my religion” – and his distrust for authority – “it ain’t safe on the block, not even for the cops”. Throughout, his voice remains tightly coiled, aggressive without becoming abrasive. He is charismatic, and manages to hold the otherwise fantastic record together through it’s weaker middle stretch. As far a genre-defining albums go, Konnichiwa is pretty fantastic. It feels catchy without being populist, and expansive without abandoning its roots. Even with some failed experiments, Skepta deserves all the success he’s been getting.