Album Review: slowthai Looks in a Cracked Mirror
TYRON, the sophomore album of UK rapper Tyron Frampton—aka slowthai—takes the scathing perspective of his debut, Nothing Great About Britain, and turns it on himself. Even as he searches through a turbulent childhood and a sudden rise to fame for jewels of wisdom, slowthai keeps his brash satire and disregard for public standards. Also returning are his broad ear for production along with the diverse talents of Kwes Darko, Kelvin Krash, and SAMO.
Ty enters the album as a familiarly chaotic figure: “45 SMOKE” is a hard-edged opener on a sinister-sounding beat reminiscent of the disembodied chanting on Big Sean’s “Control,” and he closes its first verse by declaring “The world is mine.” This much cockiness is to be expected from the artist who, since the release of his first album in 2019, has been nominated for a Mercury Prize, toured across North America, and been lauded by artists on both sides of the Atlantic for his innovative blends of punk, grime, and rap music. Nothing Great About Britain first found an audience in British youth discontent with their political leaders, and as they swarmed to his music—featuring snide encounters with the Queen and harsh stories of wealth inequality—he gladly became a symbol of their grievances. While performing at those Mercury Awards, he swung about an effigy of Boris Johnson’s severed head, but as the rapper’s focus turns towards the personal, he aligns himself against a new set of villains.
“CANCELLED,” featuring Skepta, the grime veteran who has repeatedly co-signed Tyron, is a chant against “cancel culture,” something which slowthai has reckoned with on several fronts. On the one hand, he holds his disdain for respectability which has always worked against him, a boy from Northampton with tattoos and sharp political opinions. On the other, he has learned from a moment of public outrage after making sexual innuendos towards comedian Katherine Ryan and getting in an altercation with a fan at the NME Awards, actions which he described as “shameful.” The track falls somewhat short of this nuance, and Skepta’s hook sounds more like a direct threat to would-be shunners, but it’s not the last mention of the subject on the album.
“MAZZA” is slowthai’s first collaboration with A$AP Rocky—whose AWGE label imprint will be releasing the album—and the song stands out as perhaps the album’s most lighthearted moment. Ty’s verse is as unsettling as ever, but warm production by him and SAMO gives a sense of hedonistic glee to its threats. In the song’s music video, he and Rocky eat laced apples and trip out in monochromatic rooms. This twisted fairy-tale scenario calls attention to the album’s cover, where Tyron sits below an apple tree, an arrow through his eye in a dark retelling of William Tell.
“PLAY WITH FIRE,” the last song of the album’s first half, plays out like a BROCKHAMPTON song. Its delicate chorus of faded vocals, a few notes plucked on metallic strings and punctuating gunshots, loops twice before the beat drops and a distorted voice declares “I’m hypersensitive.” After the last chorus, a stripped-down version of the instrumental kicks in and a reflective slowthai talks through the outro: “I feel like I’ve got my head in a blender… ”
The album’s second half unpacks this turmoil. Where Ty’s music is normally a violent exorcism of his demons on wax, songs like “i tried” and “feel away” with James Blake are rooted in an almost apologetic desire to sort through the causes and effects of his erratic behavior. “It’s not you/” he laments on the chorus of “feel away,” “/so I guess it’s me.” The world of this second half is the same as the first, in all its misfortunes and stress—but slowthai no longer stands at its molten core. “terms,” featuring Dominic Fike and Denzel Curry, returns to the issue of public opinion, as the trio struggle to reckon with their personal issues in the spotlight, coming to the conclusion “no matter what they get my words twisted/…Shit could be worse.”
On “nhs,” he takes himself out of the picture entirely, guiding the listener to confront their own insecurities. The song is dedicated to the UK’s National Health Service, whose workers have been crucial to the nation’s battle against the coronavirus. In the music video, he dances atop a mountain of toilet paper and dances in line for groceries, applying his eye for the satirical and absurd to our current crisis.
By the end of “adhd,” the album’s bass-and-heart-thumping closer, a new side to the rapper has emerged. No longer the private life of a brazen star, TYRON bares the artist to his own cutting technique, and not only does he return whole, but perhaps greater than before. What the album lacks in political incisiveness, it gains in the nuance of its twin perspectives. Having told the story of his country, slowthai is ready to tackle his own.