Review: Skepta – ‘Konnichiwa’

Written By James Schofield on 05/09/2016

AOTW_Skepta

Grime, the transitive verb, is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as ‘accumulated dirtiness and disorder’. The latter word, inarguably, is the most important so far as grime, the music genre, is concerned. There is an inherent implication, naturally, that grime should be grimy – and by means of this definition, one single name must spring to mind as the truest agent of the genre’s definition. That name, of course, is Skepta.

Label head for Boy Better Know, and grime veteran (having been active since the mid-2000s) has seen a his career take a very sudden turn, and equivalent change, in recent times. Catching the ear of Canadian superstar Drake, who later joined Skepta on the latter’s aforementioned label Boy Better Know, the Englishman soon found himself the subject of a newer level of mainstream fame outside of the United Kingdom. Enough so, in fact, that there is at least a small portion of individuals under the impression that Skepta’s new album, Konnichiwa, is his first. Which, of course, it isn’t – it’s his fourth. Which better explains why followers and fans of the genre, when considering the genre, think so immediately and readily of Skepta’s name. The album’s opener, and title track, is perhaps as good a declaration of Skepta’s suitability to the definition of grime, as an alluring and mystical opening makes way for air raid sirens and a familiar bass led beat that does just enough to ensure that Skepta’s vocals and lyricism hold the spotlight. Whether it’s going a long way to affirm and explain his accessibility as an artist and an individual with lines such as ‘boy better know a man went to the BRITs on a train’, or exploring his role as a hero for the genre’s propensity for disorder with ‘tell the Prime Minister we still remember, man don’t care what colour or gender, nobody’s votin’ for your corrupted agenda’. There is a very good reason, after all, that Skepta is regarded so very highly in the genre that he has, in all honesty, been a pioneer of.

For the album’s second track, Lyrics, Skepta pays homage to another pioneer of the genre with a sample of a Wiley track, and offers an ode to the genre’s origins (and, arguably, Skepta’s own origins) by speaking on diss tracks and rap battles. Skepta is aided on the track by another Grime artist who cut his teeth with rap battles, in young up and comer Novelist, and between deep bass thumps and arcade sounds the pairing offer up a bravado party starter as infectious, perhaps, only they could. Fellow grime veteran Wiley makes another appearance of the third album track, Corn on the Curb, with a guest verse. Easily the strongest of the album’s opening tracks, the bass is turned down slightly to allow synths and violins of craft a beat oozing with as much attitude as the Grime pairing’s lyrics and delivery. The disorder and the chaos that grime champions is as extraordinarily evident, and obviously on display, here as much as it ever has been or ever could be. It would be so easy to think that disorder, chaos and unabashed bravado is all that grime is, if one weren’t to listen closer and hear lines such as the Skepta delivered ‘I know pain, I know sorrow, I know empty, I know hollow’ which hint at something deeper and more meaningful. The same line is also evidence of Skepta’s intelligence, and skill with his words, using the line ‘I know hollow’ to communicate a second meaning where Skepta shouts out fellow grime rapper Giggs, whose alias is Hollow/Hollowman.

The fact that grime is as much about attitude, as it is about protest, surfaces again on Crime Riddim, where Skepta addresses the police and the justice system over a dark, menacing beat (and a well-utilised xylophone). The same could be said of the speaker-rattling It’s Not Safe, originally released way back in 2014. It thumps with attitude, bravado and protest (all rolled up in the ball of disorder that grime aims for), even managing to make an overly repetitive hook work well. It also may well mark the initial introduction of the American influence on Skepta’s contemporary sound, which is explored even further on Ladies Hit Squad featuring D Double E and American A$AP Nast on the hook. Originally released in time for Valentine’s Day 2016, on the 15th episode of Drake’s OVO Sound Radio, the track is perhaps the single best example of how Drake and his influence have impacted Skepta’s sound contemporarily. Incorporating sounds which would not be out of place on a Drake track, and likewise the same for subject matter, Skepta may well have his single most mainstream friendly track with Ladies Hit Squad. Accessible and infectious, the track is easy to imagine being played in the background of parties for years to come. Perhaps just as much as can be imagined for the album’s seventh track, Numbers, featuring and produced by Pharrell Williams (who really shouldn’t need any introduction in any context). Skepta uses the opportunity to disparage typical record labels, and their obsessions with sales numbers over content, and outline in the same process his own motivations for having started his own label Boy Better Know with his brother (aka fellow Grime superstar JME) over ten years ago.

Album highlight, and another single released before the album, Man (Gang) appears next. A crew love anthem fit for the clubs (and hopefully encourage impromptu group dance offs a la something from films like You Got Served or Step Up). In the interest of full disclosure, this reviewer’s personal love for this song may rest almost entirely on the lines ‘I don’t know why man’s callin’ me family all of a sudden, like hmm, my mum don’t know your mum, stop telling man you’re my cousin’, which seems to even take some of the shine off the infectious beat with its own infectiousness (sing those lines in Skepta’s accents and tell me you don’t feel amazing as a result). The influence of Drake again reappears on Shutdown, as the OVO mastermind is sampled at the song’s beginning and end (the pair also performed this song together at London’s Wireless festival last year). Originally released in 2015, mere days after Skepta appeared in the infamous performance of Kanye West’s All Day at the 2015 Brit Awards. Shutdown is another track very much typical of the attitude and bravado of grime, and offers little more than further affirmation of Skepta as being one of the genre’s acts so simply attributable to its rising popularity worldwide. Of course, Skepta isn’t alone in having championed grime in the last few years. His own brother, JME, is responsible for one of the single best grime records of the last few years with 2015’s Integrity>. The two brothers link up for the tenth track of Skepta’s fourth studio album, flexing their skills, influence and knowledge of their genre throughout the (sure to be) crowd pleaser That’s Not Me.

That track, however, is very quickly overshadowed by the track which follows it – *Detox* featuring BBK (aka Boy Better Know, in case you didn’t know). Yet another example of modern music’s embrace of sounds familiar to 1980s horror movie soundtracks, Skepta and three Boy Better Know artists (Shorty, Frisco and Jammer) all offer fantastic contributions to an outstanding beat that will lend itself rapturously well to car speakers. In the sense, of course, that it threatens to – at any moment – completely destroy the speakers entirely. As do all four artists offering bars on Detox, which utilises the horror music sample so effectively with how scarily good the entire package sounds together. The only problem is that, for whatever reason, Skepta decided to make this song the shortest on the entire album (clocking in at a total of 2:47). Which seems almost cruel in that were the track even just a single minute longer in length, it would very easily be the album’s best. To end his fourth studio album, Skepta dials the attitude back to speak honestly about the girl of his dreams on Text Me Back. Of course, Skepta couldn’t let his album close out without reminding the world how clever his lyrics can be, with such winners as ‘our love’s strong like Mufasa and Simba , never need to download Tinder’.

The album overall, however, suffers slightly for me purely in the sense that so much of it was released long before the album itself. Precisely half of the songs saw themselves hit the web before Konnichiwa did, in full. And for such a, relatively, short album, that fact takes away from the experience in its entirety. Nonetheless, Skepta does more than enough to show why he is such a prominent name in the genre of grime, and prove himself worthy of the mainstream recognition he is now beginning to have. On face value, it might seem that Skepta has taken more cues from Drake than the latter has from Skepta, but if considered close enough – the opposite may well be true. Suck on that one, fam!