Central Cee Deserves His Seat At The Table

Words: Yemi Abiade

Central Cee’s arrival was unexpected, at least for the old head writing this piece. In an ever-fluid UK music scene, where artists sprout on a daily basis primed for mainstream success, little did I know that West London—and UK drill more broadly—had a new king in Cench, riding his way into the hearts of many. I’d first heard his name on the eve of the release of his debut mixtape, Wild West, in 2021, off the strength of his provocative single “Day In The Life”. Here, he rapped with clarity and ruggedness as he called out the posers and showboaters in the game claiming to be the hardest on road.

The masses were well aware though, as “Day In The Life” stands at over 85 million streams on Spotify, while he currently has three Top 10 singles, one Top 10 project (and another this week), two MOBO Awards and three BRIT Award nominations to his name in the space of a year. Cench is very much the product of the age he’s in, that of instant virality and clicks through mediums such as TikTok, where his music has taken on a life of its own and received colossal exposure. But to simply cite his TikTok powers would be a disservice to one of, if not the hottest rapper in the game, who has been on his grind for half a decade.

Freestyling on Link Up TV from as early as 2015 and dropping his first EP a year later, Central Cee has demonstrated the hunger and drive to make a name for himself, making the immediacy of his recent success not very immediate at all—he’s really been working. Whether he speaks on the dog-eat-dog mentality of the streets or drops an ode to a lover, drill has proven a happy homebase for his wide-ranging, thematic motifs, but his desire to challenge himself musically stokes his creative flame and output.

On “Loading”, taken from Wild West, Cench flexes to the warmth of jazz-flavoured trumpets, while on new tape 23, he glides over trap on outro “End Of The Beginning” (co-produced by one Santan Dave) and touches on endearing subject matter, also shown in his heated conversation with ‘Lil Bro’. But the devil is in the details when it comes to Cench. Not many UK rappers of his visibility would namecheck the late, great MF DOOM—an icon of alt-rap—as he does on “8 Ball”, but he’s such a student of the game that it feels natural, fitting with his mission towards versatility. “I don’t want to be boxed in as a drill rapper,” he told Complex UK last year. “It sort of ties in to me doing my own thing. It’s not intentional, but I definitely don’t like labels or expectations and my work reflects my own diverse influences.”

Of course, Cench isn’t without his critics and opinions are split on his use of samples, with some arguing that they’re almost too basic in their execution and others applauding the refreshening of drill music sonically, which he’s had a hand in ushering in. If anything, his relationship with producers such as Young Chencs, Hargo and Nastylgia, who flipped pop sensation PinkPantheress on Cench’s “Obsessed With You”, add a lighter touch to a genre known for its sinister sonics and menacing subject matter, opening up the field in the same way R&G did for grime years prior. That alone demonstrates that Cench is thinking beyond the confines of his comfort zone.

Still early in his career, Central Cee has international backing, as evident in his cross-country collaboration on “Eurovision” with a slew of French, Spanish and Italian rappers, and can count screaming fans in the streets of Amsterdam and a sizable American fanbase as an impressive feat. Meanwhile, features with the likes of Ed Sheeran, D-Block Europe and FKA twigs—superstars in their own right—serve as the ultimate co-sign of his powers. Keeping his finger well and truly on the pulse, Cench’s close relationship with the London-based streetwear brand Corteiz—worn by everyone from Stormzy to the late, great Virgil Abloh—recently spawned a limited-edition T-shirt activation. which crashed the Corteiz website within minutes. Not to mention his ongoing links to Trapstar, who have released a number of successful collaborative bundles with the rapper. What’s clear here is that Cench moves units and picks up plaques wherever he goes. With plans to launch his own label, Live Yours, later this year—with the aim, as he told The FACE, to “spread my blessings, to put other people on”—his bid to “make some change and pick up the young Gs,” as he lays out in “Cold Shoulder”, is set to bare abundant fruit.

The UK music scene is a fast moving one, subject to change according to the whim of a few artists, and Central Cee has entered that needle-mover conversation with aplomb. Enveloping music and culture in his wake, his ascent has been nothing short of breath-taking. Where he goes next is a matter of timing, but his hard work to this point, and his refusal to be categorised, serve up a healthy dose of mystery as to how he’ll next shake up the game. The top spot is his for the taking.

Posted on March 03, 2022