Album Review: Skepta—“Konnichiwa”

By James Li

Grime is one of the most vibrant parts of the British music scene right now, but it hasn’t quite made its way across the Atlantic. The genre’s aggressive 140bpm tempos and inscrutable London slang make it a hard sell for the North American mainstream, but Joseph Junior Adenuga, aka Skepta aka grime’s biggest star, might change that. He’s racked up an impressive list of co-signs. Kanye West invited him on stage at the Brit Awards; Drake signed to Skepta’s label Boy Better Know; and even Toronto mayor John Tory shouted out the Tottenham MC.

Skepta isn’t new to the scene at all – he released his debut album in 2007. But Konnichiwa, his fourth album and his first in five years, sounds like a reinvention. Skepta had previously embraced commercialism – releasing chintzy dance-pop singles and namechecking Rolex and Ed Hardy. So it’s telling that the first single he returned with is “That’s Not Me,” where he disavows his commercial past over a punchy and spartan bassline: “Yeah, I used to wear Gucci / I put it all in the bin ‘cause that’s not me.” It’s a nod to grime’s early underground roots – Skepta’s brother JME notes that they’re placed against a “nostalgic backdrop” on his guest verse.

skepta[1]

Album art for Konnichiwa

The best parts of Konnichiwa see Skepta assuming a combative stance. It pays off; his measured delivery works best when he’s throwing lyrical punches. On the Queens Of The Stone Age-sampling “Man”, he adopts his friend Drake’s motto of “no new friends”: “My mum don’t know your mum / Stop telling man you’re my cousin.” He takes aim against Britain’s prime minister on the title track, police brutality on “Crime Riddim”, and fake Muslims and Rastafarians on “Shutdown,” the album’s most immediate and visceral standout.

Authenticity is a recurring theme on Konnichiwa – this fixation might come from the challenge of bringing a regional music scene to a global audience. American influences occasionally creep onto Konnichiwa, with interesting (but mixed) results. “It Ain’t Safe” resembles trap more than grime (in fact, it sounds remarkably like Future’s “Move That Dope”), with a Memphis-style hook from Young Lord, but Skepta deftly turns it into a menacing banger. Pharrell provides a sparse and skittish instrumental on “Numbers” – the kind that Pusha T would salivate over – and Skepta has to bend his otherwise straightforward flow to adapt.

There are moments where Skepta falters. The sentiment behind album closer “Text Me Back,” about the strain that being a touring musician puts on relationships, is certainly sincere, but his straight-faced delivery of bars like “Our love is strong like Mufasa and Simba / Never need to download Tinder” might raise some eyebrows. “Ladies Hit Squad,” an R&B-influenced sex jam is another misstep, in the vein of his cringeworthy pop singles. Perhaps Drake’s influence rubbed off too much – the syrupy production and A$AP Nast’s tuneless singing stop the album’s momentum dead in its tracks. It’s a transparent bid for radio play and clashes with the album’s Gucci-in-the-bin attitude.

Still, Konnichiwa is a bold mainstream debut and will hopefully convert many new grime fans. Grime is a hyperlocal genre born from pirate radio and basement shows, but Skepta has bigger ambitions for it: he premiered Konnichiwa in Tokyo and, the day after, played a sold-out show at Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall (which doubled as the album’s release day). In other words? Grime won’t be a London thing for much longer. (Boy Better Know)

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