Surviving a rapid series of big highlights and perhaps even bigger wrecks during the early part of this decade, the lengthy process behind Konnichiwa afforded Skepta the opportunity to rediscover his creative core. The Tottenham native has been pivotal to the international appeal of grime since the foundation of Boy Better Know records over a decade ago. Following the release of 2011’s Doin’ It Again, Skepta was emanating so much heat that Diddy tapped the MC as a guide through the UK grime scene — a still burgeoning underground sound Stateside. Less than two year later and Skepta was scrapping the follow-up in favor of a lukewarm mixtape (2012’s aptly titled Blacklisted). Through this dramatic shift, Skepta took to heart the truth of this rave-inspired aesthetic: fam, community, sincerity, and artistic sovereignty. Each of these hard-earned essentials serves as kerosene to the incendiary narrative of Konnichiwa.
Even before listening to a single word, this shift in mindset is palpable from the album’s beats. The synths that pulse in the upper register during its predecessor’s “Nobody Made Me”, “Amnesia”, and “Big” are substantially reduced throughout this new 12-track offering. The bellowing bass lines have cleared all this excess, making room for the album’s calculated mix of bravado and socially conscious lyricism. To that end, Skepta also serves as the production force behind the majority of the album, receiving production credits on eight tracks.
A combination of drum and bass, garage, and Caribbean dancehall, Wiley (a mentor to both Skepta and Dizzee Rascal) described grime more simply during its infancy as “youth making music for youth.” Now in their thirties, Skepta and Wiley are pairing that youthful braggadocio with the real-world wisdoms earned through broken promises and unjustly extinguished existences. “I know pain, I know sorrow/ I know empty, I know hollow/ I just flew my Gs out to Amsterdam/ And I told them ‘thank me tomorrow,’” Skepta reflects on the pair’s collaborative “Corn on the Curb”. It’s not the wealth that motivated Skepta to get through the lows of his career, but those earnest connections.
The unanticipated tribulations of fame are central to the Pharrell Williams-featuring “Numbers” as well. While the inclusion of Marvin Gaye-emulator Williams is an ironic choice, the track serves its purpose as an infectious condemnation of the industry’s push to commoditize urban music and culture. Skepta continually draws from his own struggles to make profound cultural statements. The continued degradation and police violence of his community are pushed to the front of “It Ain’t Safe” and the throwback flow of “Crime Riddim”. On “Shutdown”, Skepta makes the case for his own political party: “We don’t listen to no politician/ Everybody on the same mission/ We don’t care about your isms and schisms.”
Skepta also digs deep into his cranium to unravel a trail of cross-continental hip-hop references. The opening title cut commences with a Wu-Tang-esque series of kung fu sounds and following cut “Lyrics” only begins to take shape after sampling a 2001 onstage moment between Pay As U Go Cartel and Heartless Crew, a battle that led to the infamous “lyrics for lyrics, calm” clip. During the D Double E and A$AP Nast-featuring “Ladies Hit Squad”, Nast takes a few shots at Travi$ Scott for jacking A$AP Rocky’s style.
Though Drake never makes an official appearance, he looms large. One of Drizzy’s Vines gets sampled to bookend “Shutdown”. Never name-dropped specifically, Drake is also likely one of the “new ones” (or friends) Skepta mentions throughout “Man”. (The guy did get a Boy Better Know tat recently, after all.) Landing on the tracklist just after “Numbers”, the pair of singles best epitomizes Skepta’s tightly wrapped position within the Boy Better Know collective after the ills he experienced in the major label world. This transition further away from the celebrity-driven rap market has enabled Skepta to rise to his current heights.
With his brother Jme joining in on the track, “That’s Not Me” reads like a rough lead to a UK social media profile: “Act like a wasteman? That’s not me/ Sex any girl? Nah that’s not me/ Lips any girl? Nah that’s not me.” Closing out the album, “Text Me Back” is a soul-revealing love letter to a jilter lover. The track’s underlying atmospherics and slow-burning bass spotlight a much softer Skepta than the one trumpeted throughout the album’s mid-point.
Grime never belonged in the mansions occupied by the likes of P. Diddy. Reclaiming his own identity, Skepta is now properly equipped to amplify the sound just above its dank, underground incubator. From this vantage point, the entire globe can peer in, opening up opportunities for a new generation of youth to make a unique mark on the culture. The likes of Skepta and Wiley are now better able to serve as mentors for the youth and protectors against the cultural cannibals of the music industry.
Essential Tracks: “Man”, “Ladies Hit Squad”, and “That’s Not Me”