Skepta’s now sprinting: Konnichiwa Album review

 

As the sun’s rays stream through the petals of a large cherry blossom tree in the Far East a new dawn is breaking over a Shinto shrine in Kyoto, Japan. 320 miles to the east of Kyoto the dawn serves to further illuminate the neon skyscraper’s which look down upon the overcrowded streets of Tokyo’s exploding colours and vivid imagery. Peer a little closer at the hustle and bustle below and you’ll notice a gaggle of Harajuku girls running through the streets chanting lyrics, not to a traditional Japanese tome but to a song created 5950 miles away – they are chanting the lyrics to ‘Shutdown’ and they are running to catch a glimpse of street samurai Skepta shutdown the stage at the ‘Boiler room’ Konnichiwa album launch party in Tokyo.

It is fitting that Skepta should use the language of a nation for his album title whose country’s name translates as “Sun Origin” if the country Japan is the origin of the sun then Skepta the man is a key player in bringing Grime back to its origins as we witness a new dawn break on an entire genre on a global scale. Grime’s first incarnation was an insular affair; it was confined to East London with MC’s from other areas automatically outcast, it didn’t have the promotional push other genre’s had and the authorities associated Grime raves with violence. With Grime being sent to the graveyard Skepta decided to make the commercial, electronic dipped sing along album ‘Doin’ it again’ in 2011, the album amassed some commercial success but saw Skepta sacrifice his street origins as he succumbed to the pressures of the major label he was signed to. Skepta had followed suit and was making radio friendly pop tunes all while flexin’ his Rolex to sweep up the money nestled at the peak of the pop charts.

After the 2008 major label release ‘Doin it again’ Skeppy took some time out and came back with a vengeance to purge himself from pop and also offer insight into his oppressed mind-set with his formidable ‘Underdog Psychosis’ video upload in which he spoke candidly about a system which constantly put him down, he spoke on the pre judgements and prejudices that hold people back and urged the youth of today to be “More than THEY expect you to be and remain ambitious because you can achieve greatness” At that point in his career it was clear Skepta was tired of pleasing others and pledged to release real music from the heart which resulted in the release of the authentic 2012 ‘Blacklisted’ mixtape; a continuation of the soul-searching he began in ‘Underdog Psychosis.’ ‘Blacklisted’ boasted sombre production and stark revelations from Junior to aid Skepta in rediscovering his sound and soul. In hindsight blacklisted served as a segue to ‘Konnichiwa’ and signified a period in Skepta’s career where he refused to do as the money man asked and decided to make organic Grime music and videos as displayed with the release of ‘That’s not me’

After a period of reflection Skepta launched himself into the conscious minds of music fans everywhere like a sumo wrestler launching himself at his opponent. With worldwide bangers such as ‘Shutdown’ and co-signs from Kanye and Drake the mainstream could no longer ignore the influence of Grime and by the time the making of ‘Konnichiwa’ was announced the world was more than ready to feed their hunger with Skeppy songs in place of sushi dishes, which are consumed in the western world but originated in the East. The Japanese gave us Sushi and in return we loaned them Skepta. ‘Konnichiwa’ much like sushi is a tightly packaged 12 track offering of complimentary flavours. ‘Konnichiwa’s strength is in its dualities – it’s funny yet fierce, Old skool yet bang up to date, emotional yet raw and formulaic (in places) yet experimental. Skepta has made the album his way without compromise or sacrifice, he’s achieved what was thought to be impossible – made a true Grime album which sounds familiar to fans who have been with the scene from day one and also ensured a cohesive introduction was crafted for new listeners.

‘Konichiwa’ opens like an atmospheric movie, our underdog the protagonist Skepta is strolling through an oriental garden barefooted, trickling streams meander lazily under his feet, birdsong sweetly serenades the microphone champion but suddenly a sense of danger breaks the serenity of the day and a sword is drawn from its sheath. Skepta is poised and ready to clash with the approaching threat, calm is broken and the track becomes ominous and tense with an ethereal vocal introduced, we are then plunged into the sounds of the streets – sirens cry a warning to its residents to scatter, broken glass can be heard and a riot is raging. By the time Skepta bursts through the track sword swinging like a warrior at war his lyrics are personal and powerful each bar is packed with ammo – he speaks of the loss of his child and loosing friend and protégé Lukey. He wastes no time in telling us that “Man don’t care what colour or gender, nobodies voting for your corrupted agenda” when speaking of politicians. He asserts “I’ve been killin it over 10 years on the road that’s a permanent mark they can’t smudge me” Skepta shows he hasn’t forgotten his roots by patriotically stating he “Popped like the 05th November” when he entered the scene.

The bass heavy and Grimey – ‘Lyrics’ merges past and present revisiting the infamous 2001 clash between Pay as you Go and Heartless crew which had fellow sensei in training at the time Wiley stating “Lyrics for Lyrics calm” in a plea for peace, which forms the basis of this track. The ninja turtle who’s stepped into Skepta’s circle, Novelist holds his own as a new artist amongst Grime greats. Wiley himself steps forward from a nostalgic intro to a feature on the hook of ‘Corn on the curb’ where he gives his unique take on the come up and how MC’s fought for respect. The most interesting and unexpected part of the track is when Skepta seems like he can’t be arsed to carry on spittin’ kisses his teeth and decides to bell Chip and the track grinds to a sludgy halt. This is the most revealing moment of the album – Skepta is conflicted he’s defeated, he’s weary, Chip is like the human form of a rechargeable battery pack urging Skepta to “Power up fam” and informs Skepta he’s been set a mission from god.

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‘Crime Riddim’ pays homage to the storytelling style of rap from the golden era of Hip Hop over a Japanese computer game type instrumental, which sees Skepta incorporate elements of the country he’s adopted as his spirit home. Skepta creates a narrative of a hype night with the mandem in the club which saw him arrested for fighting, he wasn’t impressed when the “Feds wanna shift man, wanna put me in the van wanna strip a man, fuck that I ain’t a Chippendale, wanna strip a male…” showing his word play is on point throughout the track.

Next we come to what I like to call the stars and stripes section of the album which has given Skepta his most successful crossover hits in the usually impenetrable U.S market. ‘It ain’t safe’ sees Skepta switch up his style to a 3 6 Mafia type flow, Young Lord provides the hook to the 21st century’s answer to ‘Fuck the police.’ ‘Ladies Hit Squad’ is a superior track because it’s retro, cheesy, satirical and sounds like nothing else on the album, the boxing bells inserted throughout the track at Miloco studios by engineer Darren Jones, brought back memories of the reggae subgenre – ‘lovers rock’ and the slow whiners I observed at the West Indian club back in the day. A modern twist is added with a feature from the great D Double E and the slightly grating Drake-esque hook provided by A$AP Nast. Skepta’s star power draws the legendary producer Pharrell Williams to lend vocals and take the reins on production as Skepta bemoans the studio executives who only talk to him about ‘Numbers’ when he’d prefer to talk to the youth. As expected from Pharrell’s production it’s sparse, skittish but memorable, the man himself drops a witty verse “My accountants counting my cabbage, also countin my carrots, vegetarian habits since BBC was established” -a double entendre meaning – as Pharrell’s clothing label is Billionaire’s Boys club and he’s featuring on a British artists’ album who resides in the country of one of the most recognisable television corporations – BBC.

This brings us to what I affectionately term the ‘Greatest hits’ part of the album. Here we are reminded of Skepta’s journey which has seen him become a sometimes reluctant Grime general whose sound is now recognised worldwide. We’ve heard these songs before but the placement of the tracks within the context of the album reminds us exactly why Skepta is flying the flag for UK Grime. We have the ‘Queens of the Stone age’ sampled ‘Man’ (again signifying that the genres of rock, rap and now Grime are close friends due to their rebellious spirit) we have the absolute banger ‘Shutdown’ and the track that stripped the gloss from Grime which seemed to be forming around it ‘That’s not me’ these three tracks carry the essence of grime within their cores and instantly evoke a sense of patriotism and pride when heard.

‘Detox’s’ instrumental is an eerily raw riddim, it has a “Don’t go outside on your own unarmed you fool” horror movie feel to it. Skepta assembles the track suit mafia with his BBK bwoys Shorty, Frisco and Jammer steppin’ up to the mic to lace the track with some sick bars from Frisco “When I’m riding the riddims got no time for the isims” which reminds us of when Skepta told us he’s also not a fan of ‘isims’ on the track ‘Shutdown.’ Jammer goes IN hard with a fire verse which is stylised and full of flair – “Man’s on a wave, Dagenham Dave, man violate get a punch in your face” Detox is an anthem for the man pon road and is the flip side of the coin to “Ladies Hit Squad” which is Skepta’s tribute to us females. If Skepta were to release ‘Detox’ as an A side vinyl ‘Ladies Hit Squad’ would be its B side companion.

The last track on the album will resonate with women worldwide – you text your man to see how he’s doing and you’re pretending not to care that he hasn’t ‘Text you back’ but you’re looking at the phone every 10 seconds for the response, this is Skepta’s explanation to the “Girl of his dreams” who effortlessly mixes “The Chanel with the ‘preme” he compares his loved one to a work of art and is apologetic for being busy whilst reassuring her that their “Love’s strong like Mufasa and Simba, never need to download tinder.” Skepta dedicates the second verse to another special lady in his life – his mother. Skepta explains to his mum he can’t come home just yet as he’s grinding hard for his family and his friends, he expresses he’ll only rest when the people he cares about are comfortable and as successful as he is, he hopes she’ll be patient and “Texts her a love heart, texts her a rose.”

As the sun sets casting an eerie glow over the pond in our oriental garden framed with traditional snow lanterns we are treated to a beautiful outro produced by the Daniel son to Skepta’s Mr. Miyagi aka Skepta’s little brother Jason Adenuga. The outro sounds pure and honest and conjures up an image of the underdog rising up from the ashes a little battered and a little bruised but against all odds, he stands triumphant as the credits roll (deep) on a masterpiece of a movie.

Skepta has put his stamp (with his own face on it if his album cover is anything to go by!) on the greatness of Grime and he’s also “Flipped the country on its head” just like that reverse “1st” on his stamp.

Cammy Thomas