Has The UK Music Scene Lost Its Competitive Spirit?

Words: Yemi Abiade

One element of rap music that separates it from every other musical genre is the element of competition. Whether it’s rappers going bar for bar on classic tracks or rap fans debating their top 50 greatest emcees of all time, rap is driven by the innate strive to be the best, to stand out amongst your peers, puffing out your chest and proclaiming your greatness at every given opportunity. It’s why a rapper like Soulja Boy implores himself to state that he’s the best in the game, or why Lil Wayne labelled himself the ‘Best Rapper Alive’ during his epic album/mixtape run of the early 2000s.

This spirit was not lost on us in the UK and, particularly in the evolutionary days of grime, where everyone was no one, your bars were what stood you out. In a crowded market of soon-to-be iconic rappers and artists, competition separated the weak from the chaff, and only the strongest survived. Reliving this spirit via the countless early pirate radio sets, Sidewinders, DVDs etc, you get a real sense of the hunger from the likes of Wiley, Dizzee, Kano, D Double E and more to simply prove that they belonged.

As black British music’s focus has shifted in recent years from grime to UK rap, Afropop, Afroswing and newer, more accessible genres, it can be argued that the same spirit of competition has been diluted somewhat. Granted, most of the new school have toiled to get to where they currently are. The likes of Stormzy, Dave, J Hus and MoStack, through the mediums of SBTV, GRM Daily, Link Up TV and more, had to prove they were lyrically capable before even being seen as marketable stars. Once that star is achieved however, that same competitive spirit tends to get lost in the new arena of pop hits, endorsements and greater visibility. Money has certainly changed the game in this aspect, as purely rapping ‘well’ isn’t likely to grant exposure to a wide market of fans who will stream albums, buy merch and sell out big venues. Little Simz, for example, though shining in new forms of visibility just for her phenomenal rapping ability, may not necessarily be seen as successful as a Stefflon Don, who has certified hits and the look to match. It depends on who you’re asking.

The mainstream world tends not to allow for the sharpening of lyrical skill among rappers if, firstly, their priorities have shifted from barring to making pop anthems and, secondly, if they’re trying to secure the bag. Most big tracks these days sound the same, and that can’t be a coincidence. Artists go for what works for the market and stick with it, namely the sound of a track rather than the lyrics laid down. In fact, because most newer UK artists are friends with each other, when they appear on tracks together, it’s more to compliment each other rather than go for necks. Stormzy would prefer to create a track like “Cigarettes & Cush” with Kehlani than go bar for bar with another rapper. But priorities change, and as newer artists have become buddies and the urge to monetise their friendships has increased, competition has suffered.

Dave and J Hus’ “Disaster”, from the former’s 2019 debut album Psychodrama, was a breath of fresh air; two of the best our country has to offer going at it in lyrical warfare, just because they could. Though good friends, the feeling was that the two cast their status’ to the side and took it back to the old days, of Dave breaking through on Bl@ckbox and Hus on SBTV—the kind of hunger and competition that harkens back to the early grime days. Perhaps I’m too much of an oldhead harping too much on bars, but it felt like a real boost for the scene to see two future kings go back to their roots.

The OGs continue to keep the competitive flame going however, because that notion of striving to be the best has not been lost on them. “Class Of Deja”, Kano, Ghetts and D Double E’s masterpiece, is undoubtedly one of the tracks of the year, channelling that do-or-die attitude they carried as young bucks in the early days. Honourable mentions also go to Ghetts and Chip’s “Shellington Crescent” and P Money, Little Dee and Manga’s “That’s Air”—usual suspects who don’t run out of bars. All of this is not to say newer artists aren’t competitive, because it is alive and kicking amongst many of the current generation. The aforementioned Simz, Ocean Wisdom, Big Zuu, Che Lingo and many more are all top-tier spitters with plenty of promise, propping up the scene with their bars and competitive energy. It goes to further prove there’s a vibe for all amongst the new generation, competition or not.

It’s perhaps unfair to expect from the new generation of stars the same attention to bars and lyrical sharpening that the old grime lot expected of themselves, because the landscape of the UK has changed beyond recognition. Black boys and girls are now superstars and millionaires because of music, and their priorities are such that competition may not be viable or sensible for their image or status. That spirit now exists in different forms, carried forward by rappers new and old so that the pure essence of rap is kept intact. As UK music continues to evolve, competition will hopefully still be a valuable—and important—part of its DNA.

Posted on August 20, 2019