Words: Yemi Abiade

The sophomore slump is a precarious predicament in music. Following up a debut album, especially one critically and commercially exalted from all corners, is a transition not mastered by many, as they grapple with a heightened expectation to replicate their best while attempting to tread fresh and new sonic environments, as per their own creative progression. In the UK, Kano is a certified legend, one of our finest lyrical sons this side of Rodney P and a staunch disciple of the East End of London. Something of a prodigy in the halcyon days of pirate radio and grime’s early period, his debut opus, Home Sweet Home, was a flawless expression of self, perfectly weighted between his grimey roots and the slower tempo rap tunes he would become accustomed to. How he would surpass this was a question the scene was itching to know, and he answered with 2007’s London Town. A criminally undercooked gem in his catalogue, it was released in the midst of a pivotal moment for grime, where most of its stars were stretching their creative wings outside of its traditional underground sonic aesthetic, enlisting more singers and pop-friendly production to make more of a commercial dent for themselves.

But Kano’s profound skills, even then, were to perfectly balance this with the introspection, harshness and combative nature of grime itself, and London Town serves as an ode to the city that raised him, delving deep into the seedier side of life in LDN; the prototypical tales of broken families, seeking solace in gang life, drugs and crime, before ultimately rising from the ashes of a certain death bed this life produces. One immediate thing to note about the album is its sonic difference. London Town, according to Kano on the album’s title track, is “grime but a little slower,” so, while still flying the flag, darker and more melancholic sounds infiltrate, almost serving as a stark opposite to his previous work. If Home Sweet Home represented an energetic, cocksure younger getting to grips with life, London Town was the mature, jaded older who had been around the block and seen much in the two-year gap between albums.

From the classic alarm-ringing grime of the intro, “The Product”, Kano, still only 22 years old, makes it known his lyrical skills are still at the forefront of his art, as he proclaims himself as an offshoot of the streets—a status he holds more dearly than any mainstream award or success. Credibility on the roads is a theme running throughout the album, as Kano conceptually battles with representing this and evolving from it, as the album flip-flops between these stances throughout. But “The Product” is his most focused and concise affirmation to this motif. The following title track is equally gravelly and bass-shattering; a gritty, intimidating welcome to the UK capital. Not the tea and crumpets, white-washed picture of London the higher powers will want to present, but the concrete jungle that engulfs the lives of its disenfranchised: “Niggas from London we don’t fuck around,” Kano affirms throughout, a mission statement from the underground.

Further down the album, Kano is riddled with the angst that can engulf young people like him on the roads, sonically looking over his shoulders as he navigates through his broken city, especially as he paints a picture of the police and gang life on a remake of Junior Murvin’s classic anthem “Police & Thieves”. Spitting over an acoustic guitar, he is visceral but delicate on “Fightin’ The Nation”, his mourning of a prototypically broken life in London: “Six kids all living in a flat, no jobs, no dough, every dealer on his back, mum’s on her own, drunk when she comes home, days on ends, sleeps out and don’t phone.” Told in intricate detail, this tale is a microcosm of urban life, the type that—to this day—still sparks moral panic throughout the country, but rarely gets the attention from the powers that be it needs. It is a landmine that even his harder-than-nails Top Boy character Sully would have trouble navigating, but Kano is simply a mouthpiece relaying this life to the public.

But album highlight “Feel Free”, with its haunting piano riff, choir chants and weighty Damon Albarn assist, is Kano’s comforting rally for people from all walks of life to embrace his message of advancement despite their dire situations. All you need, according to him, is to put your headphones on and sing along to the riddim. For someone who grew up primarily without his dad, Kano’s bars resonated deeper with me, a source of comfort letting me know that I wasn’t the only in that situation. But even K-A remains uneasy, professing to “sleeping with my heat tonight” on “Sleep Tight”. It is an incredibly poignant moment in the opus, the acceptance that, despite striving to be a vehicle for change in the ends, his surroundings refuse to grow with him, and its cannibalistic tendency to overwhelm itself and everyone in it means he’ll always have to be careful, especially as a rapper with a status of having “made it”.

Despite the omens of the subject matter, there are lighter moments peppered throughout London Town, none more so on his Craig David-collab “This Is The Girl”. A glossy, obvious attempt at radio play and more commercial gains, it is an admirable—if not dated—attempt at a time where this was becoming the norm. “Me & My Microphone”, featuring a young Kate Nash, also walks down this line, a feel-good anthem to counter the darkness as Kano is thankful of the chance to make a living doing what he loves. But, being a grime MC, he brings it back to basics in the final, hidden masterpiece, “Grime MC”—a raucous reminder that, despite being one of the scene’s leading stars transcending into wider popular culture, his peers still can’t hold a lyrical candle to him.

London Town, ultimately, is a mature sophomore effort that encompasses Kano’s burning desire to be about his music. Scattered but focused in equal measure, across 12 tracks, the East London legend walks a sonic, thematic tight rope with ease, as he tackles the anxieties of his generation, from broken homes to carrying guns, and couple it with hope for more, for better and for life. It taught me that everyone’s struggle is unique, but the challenge of overcoming it is what makes Londoners so resolute and determined. And though the city is a concrete jungle, I personally wouldn’t have it any other way, because it is still the metropolis that has shaped my character. If Home Sweet Home put him on the map, London Town solidified K-A not only as one of the forerunners of grime, but also one of the best songwriters and craftsmen of his generation.

Posted on August 20, 2018