2018 Is Rectifying One Of UK Black Music’s Biggest Problems: The Album

Words: Yemi Abiade

As healthy as the UK black music scene continues to be, and as it enjoys arguably its greatest period of productivity, one thing that has always made it pale in comparison to hip-hop and R&B in America—in my humble opinion—are its albums and wider bodies of work. One of the few definitive factors behind a strong and respected genre, albums say much about how expansive a scene is and how we measure the quality of the scene at large. They give a greater indication of the length and breadth of a genre, more than singles could, and spark endless debate amongst fans as to their impact.

In today’s streaming age, artists are more inclined to abandon this formula, choosing to drop big track after big track to increase their streams and pocket. The scene, in a sense, suffers as a result because it prohibits the forwarding of the truly groundbreaking bodies of work that these artists’ albums could potentially be. This is not to say big singles don’t do this, but an album’s impact on a style of music is far more deductible than a single. The Beatles consistently put out classic albums, and they altered the face of modern popular music in a way that is still felt in 2018.

Even in the grime scene, where subjectivity is rife (as with any genre), Dizzee’s Boy In Da Corner and Kano’s Home Sweet Home are undeniable classic albums in the eyes of fans and critics, which help cement it as another major statement of black musicianship and art. The same became clear of hip-hop in the late 1980s, or its ‘golden age’ as the period has become known, where Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, N.W.A., Run-DMC and more were expanding the critical and financial parameters of the genre by releasing timeless bodies of art. For a scene to fully thrive, I’ve always believed that the album was paramount to artists making serious statements of intent and progression, and that the richness and variety of a genre is most evident within this tapestry.

The UK black music scene, despite stellar albums from Kano, Stormzy and J Hus in the last couple of years, remains in an embryonic stage of development, and some of its main poster boys and girls have yet to produce vast bodies of work to stand against the aforementioned Dizzee or Kano. Albums don’t appear to be a priority for the likes of Kojo Funds, Yxng Bane or RAYE, but in the immediate underbelly of the scene, across all genres, more and more artists are rewriting the script and strengthening the foundation of UK black music with quality albums in 2018.

London’s jazz scene is especially playing its part. Kamaal Williams’ debut album, The Return, sees the former member of Yussef Kamaal seizing the moment, demonstrating incredible musicianship and experimentation which is channeled into an opus that never verges on the predictable. Contemporaries such as Joe Armon-Jones, The Sons Of Kemet and Ezra Collective also laid down markers this year with exceptional projects which showcase the variety and range of the jazz scene at a time so early into its existence; the fact that this subsection of the scene is already so rich and fluid bodes very well for UK music in general, and the feeling is that a number of defining albums will emerge in the next few years.

On the rap side of things, massive props have to go to spitter Ocean Wisdom and trio The Age Of L.U.N.A. The former’s Wizville LP, with features from Dizzee, Method Man, P Money and more, is non-stop ferocious lyrical excellence that can compete with even the glossier rap albums dropped either side of the pond this year. The Camden rapper is officially the world’s fastest rapper alive according to the Guinness Book of World Records—fitting in 4.45 words per second on 2016 track “Walkin’”—and album opener “Eye Contact” is a dizzying recognition of his abilities and power to send listeners into a trance with his words.

Meanwhile, The Age Of L.U.N.A. channel the breeziness of ‘90s alternative hip-hop acts like A Tribe Called Quest and Souls of Mischief with a laid-back, cohesive, self-titled debut offering that showcases the synergy between MCs Butch Arkas and Kyote Noir and singer Daniella Thomas; almost like a British version of The Fugees but quintessentially British in their delivery. Even producers such as JD. Reid are expanding the horizon of the great UK album—his latest project, Tree, features some of UK rap’s finest in slowthai, 808ink, Reeko Squeeze et al., and is a sprawling, multi-dimensional listening experience. Then you have the silent but deadly beatmaker Melo-Zed’s debut outing, Eleven—a Soulection-esque utopia and firm favourite amongst his day one fans. These opuses may not immediately transcend the scene into the pop charts or even widespread critical acceptance, but what they are doing is improving the scene itself, offering bodies of work that can be looked back on with a collective pride.

In all, after 2017 brought albums from Stormzy and J Hus that will be talked about for decades to come, 2018 has proven a major progression from those heady heights, as the players just under the superstars have strengthened the core, expanding the conservation of what makes great British black music. These artists are building on the work laid out in earnest last year to project the multi-genre dynamism of the scene, showing that there is now a foundational base for it to truly thrive. Artists are emerging everyday, but an increasingly populated milieu is now producing works of art that can stand next to the best the UK has ever offered, proving the landscape is positively growing.

Posted on June 25, 2018