“Forgive me”, Slowthai mutters at the start of his song “terms”, the tenth track of his second album TYRON. “Forgive me for everything I never wanted to do.” Then, a maniacal laugh rings out, questioning the sincerity of his apology. The track surges to life.
Apologies have come to define Slowthai’s recent career. Born Tyron Frampton, the performer spent the last three years establishing himself as the enfant terrible of British rap, whether vaulting bare-chested across Jimmy Fallon’s desk on US TV, or triumphantly waving an imitation Boris Johnson head on stage at the Mercury Awards. But it was a widely criticised appearance at the NME Awards in February of last year that attracted the most ire.
By now, the events are familiar. An exchange between Slowthai and the show’s host Katherine Ryan quickly descended into undoubtedly creepy behaviour as the rapper made repeated sexual comments about her, insisting that Ryan had “never had no one play with [her] the way I play”. His actions led to a real-time fall from grace as footage of his indiscretion rapidly spread online. Although a swift apology followed the next day, the event was continually pored over in the tabloids.
Though most commentators fairly observed that this behaviour had crossed a line, some were intent on reducing the rapper to a lazy caricature based on his working-class background. He was loutish, loud-mouthed and knew no better. While we must be careful to avoid neatly recasting Slowthai as a victim, such classist stereotyping is symptomatic of British attitudes to non-middle class, non-white men. The knottiness of the situation was further exacerbated when Ryan claimed Slowthai did not make her uncomfortable at the event: what began as a crude joke at a messy awards show had now transformed into a new and complex beast.
On TYRON, Slowthai makes no explicit references to that night. Some short months after the NME Awards, he did release the fiery riposte “ENEMY” (get it?) that sampled audio from the ceremony, including a puzzled remark from The 1975 frontman Matty Healy. Its taught bars remain conspicuously absent from TYRON’s final tracklist.
Despite this, listeners are presented with some well-worn signifiers that Slowthai’s TYRON deals with capital-I introspection rather than explicit apology. A self-titled record is classic shorthand for a “personal album”, especially from an artist who usually uses a stage name. Considering his debut was named Nothing Great About Britain and addressed the woes of a Brexit-plagued island, the direction of travel is clear.
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TYRON is split into two distinct halves: the first seven tracks are high octane, frenetic bangers, styled in all capitals to hammer the point home. The next seven songs, all written in lowercase, pour at a less hurried pace, confronting private truths and intimate emotions.
“CANCELLED”, featuring Skepta, obviously alludes to the NME incident. “I ain’t an actor, fuck the Oscars… thousand grams, fuck the Grammys,” spits Slowthai. The barbs swipe at award shows, of which he is clearly not a fan. It’s a mutinous, gothic scramble, bathing in its own insolence. But Slowthai allows his collaborator to do most of the heavy lifting: it’s Skepta who gloats “How you gonna cancel me?”, on the chorus. The knockout blow never comes from Slowthai himself.
On “DEAD” the artist waxes metaphysical with the help of Kwes Darko, but the result is forgettable, often erring into monotony. “They can take away my flesh, but they’ll never take my mind”, the chorus opines. “VEX”. on the other hand, bristles with characteristic terseness, Slowthai’s expert flow skating across its trappy beat. The rapper admits that he’s “been bad since I stepped out the womb”. The track uses this brand of angry fatalism to extract maximum fury.
The record’s second half opens with the soulful “i tried”, set to a light and charming, Sixties guitar line. But Slowthai deals in juxtaposition: lyrics focus on hefty subjects such as suicide attempts (“I tried to die/I tried to take my life”) and depressive episodes (“It feels like I’m sinking/All of the time”). The effect is disorienting and creates one of the most memorable moments of the record.
The acoustic understatement of “push” unfortunately never finds its feet in its brief two minutes and twenty second existence. While “terms” features an impressive turn from US singer Dominic Fike, whose R&B croon carries the song, it’s “nhs” that lends the album its emotional lifeblood. Its neat rhymes and melancholy, pitched-up vocals prickle with sentiment as Slowthai dedicates the track to key workers of the health service. “This one’s for the NHS, yeah”, he says, sounding wide-eyed and boyish.
Despite its successes, of which there are many, TYRON’S double sidedness is a gamble. Slowthai is clearly an accomplished musician and tastemaker, but what seems like an attempt to show the duality of man sometimes feels as if he is treading a line, one between apology and defiance, rather than working towards a coherent theme. With such clearly demarcated margins, less room is allowed to colour outside the lines.