2023: The Year History Was Made

Words: Yemi Abiade

Playlist Selections: JP, Hyperfrank, James Keith

To say that Black British music had another amazing year is almost like an MC getting a reload at this point—an undefeated emotional high of joy and pride in your hustle that confirms you’re doing something right. In 2023, a lot of things were done right: from blockbuster returns and record-setting runs to scene cultivation and new arrivals, UK music’s banner period continued in full flow.

It was a year where dreams became realities with the return of J Hus, who released his third album, the hotly-anticipated Beautiful And Brutal Yard. Containing the summer smash “Who Told You” featuring Drake, “It’s Crazy” and “Militerian”, the project proved Hus’ most divisive release to date, with many feeling its quality fell short of previous works Common Sense and Big Conspiracy. But the relief of having Juju J back outside was palpable and a balance was restored to a scene that craved his return. Real rap was offered a handsome boost with a release generally viewed as this year’s best— Potter Payper’s debut album, Real Back In Style. The Essex rhymer bared all on his first major drop, assessing his past life and its associated trauma in a rich, piercing detail that justifies his status as modern UK rap’s great storytellers.

After three years away, Nines blessed us with two projects to add to his growing legend. The second and third editions of his Crop Circle series fit his mould of engrossing, cinematic listens, as Nines spat with freedom and authority as only he could. But the biggest comeback of the year was held for the enigmatic CASISDEAD, whose debut album, Famous Last Words, finally surfaced. Nearly 10 years after his last project, The Number 23, CAS let us into his deeply immersive world of fast cars, femme fatales and science fiction for a truly one of a kind experience.

2023 proved that collaboration was salient, with several joint tapes released over the course of the 365. It began with a monumental link up: Dave and Central Cee’s Split Decision EP in early June. Not only did it involve two of UK rap’s biggest names in one space in a fun, competitive effort, but its lead single, “Sprinter”, would see a gargantuan commercial run. Sat at the top of the UK Top 40 for 10 weeks, it quickly became the longest-running No. 1 rap song on British shores, an achievement that alone puts 2023 in the record books. A week later, rap veterans Youngs Teflon and Tiny Boost provided Purple Hearts, a typically gritty and lyrically nourishing effort that accentuated the duo’s knack for introspective realism. Rounding up the year of collaboration was a drill tape for the ages: Headie One and K-Trap’s Strength To Strength. A project years in the making, the tape revitalised a genre seen by many to be creatively dull, merging the voices of two of the genre’s finest into one seamless hymn sheet.

Elsewhere, projects by the likes of Clavish, D-Block Europe, Avelino, Fredo, Unknown T, M1OnTheBeat, NSG, Novelist and P Money rounded out a strong year for the fellas. But the women of UK rap had something to say about that, making numerous statements with poise and finesse. We saw Teezandos and Cristale obliterate their Plugged In freestyle, ENNY come through with another slick project in We Go Again, AE wow the timeline with their track “Capri-Sun” and Little Simz drop one of the music videos of the year for “Gorilla”. That’s before we get to the rise of Ceechynaa, Chy Cartier’s explosive debut single, “Bossed Up”, and acts like BXKS and £MONZO spinning heads with their lyrical form. These and several others can no longer be denied, and their contributions to the scene are deservedly front and centre (long may that continue).

Alternative rap made a meaningful splash in 2023, too. The scene has grown quietly for years now, but many artists made their presence felt, including Len, Zino Vinci, Ashbeck, Joe James, Antslive, Rushy, Tay Jordan, Bawo, Nemzzz, Strandz, bib sama., Fimiguerrero and so many others. Not to mention Jim Legxacy, the crooner-rapper whose debut project, homeless n*gga pop music, stands as one of the year’s most original, forward-thinking releases. The stage is now set for this section of the scene to make real noise.

While the young bucks clicked into form, the legends of the game were pivoting to new territory. It’s likely no one had Skepta and Jammer becoming house music producers on their 2023 bingo card, but the Boy Better Know veterans set their stall out by launching their dance music label, Más Tiempo, and wowing observers with solid releases and historic DJ sets the world over. Meanwhile, grime OG Flowdan made history with a Grammy Award nomination for his collaboration with Skrillex and Fred again.., “Rumble”, KwolleM returned with his expertly-crafted grime LP, Melo, and we also had 140BPM bangers from the likes of So Large, Kruz Leone, Logan OLM, and the recently MOBO-nominated Duppy.

Outside of grime and rap, R&B was as consistent as ever this year, with Jorja Smith, Cleo Sol, Mahalia, RAYE, Ragz Originale, Sampha, Mnelia, Odeal and Ama Lou releasing well-received projects that ranged in sound and attitude. Jazz music also saw incredible success, with Ezra Collective picking up the Mercury Prize for their 2022 album Where I’m Meant To Be, Yussef Dayes delivering one of the year’s best albums in Black Classical Music, and the likes of Venna and Yazmin Lacey providing soulful jazz excursions.

Such was the range of UK music this year that there are countless others that haven’t been mentioned here. Nonetheless, salutes must go to every figure that made this year yet another memorable one. Whether big or small, the ecosystem of Black British music is all the better for it.

Editor’s Note: The playlist below is in no particular order.

Posted on December 24, 2023