Since Trump was elected three years ago, there’s been overwhelming kickback from the music industry. Its voices have almost unanimously responded unfavourably, channelling despondency and outrage directly through their cultural production. The case has been carried over into the UK, after we too wrote the next chapter of our history by voting to leave the EU earlier the same year. Accordingly, our products have also been the mouthpiece for anti-establishment rhetoric, in everything from rock to punk, hip-hop to grime.
It’s therefore hardly unique to put out something as incendiary and disillusioned as Nothing Great About Britain, no matter how warranted the hyperbole is. But it’s the manner in which Slowthai’s debut plays out that shows how it’s clearly not limited to just this. It’s the effortless fluctuation between the personal and the political, between trauma and fury, the balance of retention and responsibility, of social commentary and autobiography, the distinct fusion of punk, industrial and hip-hop. The Northampton rapper (born Tyron Kaymone Frampton) has covered the amount of ground most artists might in two or three full-length projects. So it’s unsurprising that his album remains one of the year’s highlights, even seven months after release.
The twenty-five-year-old’s personality is all over it.
There’s humour in abundance, a real sense of play that disguises an impassioned
core. ‘Gorgeous’ includes an outro detailing a memory of Frampton’s stepdad
taking him to a West Brom-Liverpool football game as a young child. In it, the
misinterpretation of whether the home or away team is listed first on the
written fixture results in travelling to the wrong end of the country. The
album is full of such anecdotes – earlier in the same track he discusses
everything from “push-bikes” to “Yu-Gi-Oh! cards.”
As listener, we’re somewhat unrestricted in terms of
the thoughts, feelings and memories we have access to. Inevitably, these are
not always so innocent. ‘Northampton’s Child’ in particular delves into Frampton’s
troubled upbringing, including the death of his one-year-old brother in 2001.
Here he also talks about being the product of a teenage pregnancy, and on
‘Peace of Mind’ recognises the need to “thank Mum for the 23 years she wiped my
arse.” But as with the tragedy he has had to move on from, this too must make
way for the next chapter in his life: “Thank you Ma, now I’m gone.”
This transition from home to the bigger world is at
the centre of Nothing Great About Britain. From the beginning, Frampton
is broadening the outlook and commenting on the current politics of the country
he so brazenly claims there’s nothing great about. After a brief intro, the
title track’s wild instrumental kicks in and Frampton brings a “Bottle of Bucky
in[to] Buckingham Palace.” Percussion and strings percolate around him as he moves
on to the “coppers from Scotland all the way down to Dagenham”, both a
reference to London’s Scotland Yard and the recent influx of Scottish police there
in order to tackle knife crime.
The commentary is frank and urgent, reporting on contemporary issues from the ground, where the country can be seen in all its pride and shame, from national team football shirts marked by “Three Lions” to the “EDL, real English boys.” But the focus isn’t exclusively now, as we realise when Frampton acknowledges those who got “stabbed with the Phillips”, a screwdriver commonly used as an improvised weapon in 1950s East London. The struggle underpinning the storytelling is both national and historic; Frampton uses his twenty-five years and hometown as a platform to widen the scope and bring in issues outside of both.
‘Dead Leaves’ for example employs metaphor to talk
about a more universal sense of generational stagnancy. ‘Inglorious’ explores
Frampton’s experience of racism, as well as the accusations of appropriation
he’s received. They came from people who made assumptions based on his
appearance, clearly lacking the basic initiative required to look up his
background. But such gravity is never lingered on for long, because the ostensive
mission statement is to talk about other people as much as himself: “See, you
judge me on my appearance, face value, innit / Don’t know about the tax bracket
/ But I know that I’m teabaggin’ your favourite mug, hahaha.” Frampton broadens
the issue – bringing in tax brackets, making it systemic – and then undercuts its
seriousness by being playful.
The child in Frampton is never far from the surface,
and he willingly lets it out on various occasions. The title track’s outro
becomes a mock conversation between Kate Middleton and the Queen, culminating
with a famously expletive description of the latter. Demonstrating similar invincibility
when it comes to talking about his peers, Frampton plays with the kind of
arrogance he can get away with as one of grime’s new poster boys. He discards
Dizzee Rascal on the title track (who some critics have actively comparedhim
to), Lethal Bizzle on ‘Grow Up’, as well as Wiley on ‘Missing’. There are further
references to Kanye and Kendrick on bonus tracks ‘Drug Dealer’ and ‘Rainbow’,
highlighting Frampton’s awareness of the American scene he went on to have
specific involvement in (having appeared on tracks with BROCKHAMPTON and Denzel
Curry later in the year). The outward look is perhaps symptomatic of the
globalisation of grime more generally, spearheaded by the breakthrough of
Frampton’s faux antagonism of the previous generation
is somewhat undone by the Skepta feature on ‘Inglorious’. It seems, therefore,
to return us back to the idea of playfulness. He also wishes to incorporate
other genres and merge them with his own, rather than confine himself to it. The
Mura Masa produced ‘Doorman’ is a clear indicator, with its experimentation of
punk and industrial rock providing the aggression and adrenaline. The production
on ‘Gorgeous’ is equally interesting, structured around piano loops that tease
the even more graceful and down-tempo ‘Toaster’ to come. As seems apt for a project
so preoccupied with thematic uncertainty, Frampton often changes pace and atmosphere
concurrent with any sonic shifts.
Yet the bigger image remains one of structured chaos. There’s a clear, designated receiving end for the album’s message of discontent, as its messenger has reiterated in the months since its release. It was at its most confrontational in the Mercury Prize performance featuring the Prime Minister’s severed head. As a cultural moment, this seems to stand alongside the reverberations of “Fuck Boris” around the Glastonbury fields during Stormzy’s headline set. Since that summer, Stormzy has released an album, been featured in the National Gallery, and impacted the recent general election, showcasing just how forcefully (and vitally) music can evolve into activism. Slowthai’s debut has come two years after the Croydon rapper’s, so only time will tell if he can emulate such sheer cultural value. Regardless, as both a protest and the epoch encapsulated, Nothing Great About Britain outdoes itself, promising a very bright future for its creator.