How Nines & Potter Payper’s Mainstream Ambitions Could Transform Music Forever ✨

Words: Son Raw

Sometimes, you can get so used to a musical paradigm that you miss the moment where everything changes. Sure, clear tipping points are easy to spot: punk’s ‘77 takeover, rave’s second Summer Of Love in ‘88, or that time Virgin Atlantic used Goldie’s “Inner City Life” as pre-flight boarding music, signalling jungle might have gone a bit too mainstream. But sometimes changes happen so gradually or so unpredictably, that you can miss their significance: from Millie Small’s novelty cover of “My Boy Lollipop” foreshadowing Jamaican music’s impact on the British pop charts to a few garage DJs in a dingy pub cooking up the future of dance music, via what would become known as dubstep. Today, with UK rap albums making a mainstream impact on the charts, separate from niche subgenres and dance music, we may be seeing a sea change. To my ears, the success of Nines’ Crop Circles 2 and Potter Payper’s Real Back In Style signal a moment where mainstream UK rap is not only thriving, but doing so while its U.S. equivalent is in a deep malaise.

This is far from the first time UK lyricism has seen commercial success, but this go around, something feels different. We’re not talking about grime MCs compromising by jumping on electro-house riddims because the label asked them to, funky artists pandering with novelty dances, or even South London transforming Chicago drill to better fit UK tempos, sounds and rhythms. Nor are Nines and Payper depending on Afrobeats’ melodies or R&B’s crossover potential, though they aren’t above dipping their toes in outside genres when a song calls for it. Instead, Crop Circles 2 and Real Style Back are straight-up UK rap bangers that ignore both the specificity of underground subgenres or the pandering of pop-rap, instead presenting complete albums full of street tales over impeccably polished, mid-tempo beats. These are the sorts of albums that Jay-Z and Eminem once made, but that American artists currently seem unable to deliver. That’s something worth investigating.

For these kinds of albums to see this level of success, the conditions have to be just right. UK dance music, after a generation of shifts and transformations, had to stabilise around existing genres that aren’t always conductive to MCing. Likewise, UK MCs had to convince the music industry of their potential, and every album by spitters ranging from Skepta to Wiley to Kano to Wretch 32 and Stormzy helped pave the way, expanding the range of UK music that could chart. Drill’s intensity and hard-nosed realism also played a part, simultaneously scaring the mainstream while opening the window for the kinds of topics mainstream rap hits could cover. Finally, it’s worth mentioning the Drake factor, as the Canadian-born superstar has served as a significant signal-booster for UK music abroad, borrowing elements of UK music while highlighting how they could be incorporated into international chart hits. Why wouldn’t UK artists aim for those lofty heights?

Of course, for all of their shared success and any similarities between their topics, Nines and Potter Payper are considerably different artists. North West London’s Nines has been charting Top 5 since his debut, and as he’s experienced success, his style has become progressively smoother and more polished, following the drug-dealer-turned-mogul model perfected by Jay-Z two decades ago. Meanwhile, Barking-born Potter revels in roughness, never touching Eminem’s gimmickry but leaning into the same type of outsider anger and the same curiosity about his background. These parallels to American titans are all the more surprising considering that American rap currently has little time for them.

Across the pond, drug dealing personas have been diminishing in appeal ever since Kanye West outsold 50 Cent in 2007, largely initially replaced by the hard-partying Auto-Tune ballads of Lil Wayne, Future and Young Thug. Today, this emphasis on melody over lyricism continues to dominate via rage rap in the vein of Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert, artists more openly influenced by punk and alternative music. Sure, there’s plenty of great rhyming in the American underground, but none of it has a chance to impact the pop charts.

All of this adds up to a moment where UK rap can run the table and win over fans of all backgrounds, from its core audience to British crossover fans to an international audience already inclined to care after UK drill production transformed music across Europe, New York, and beyond. In Nines and Potter’s case, they’ve already put their best feet forward. Both Crop Circles 2 and Real Back In Style were produced by a murderer’s row of producers drawn mostly from the UK with an occasional American, and the results hit as hard as any street-oriented drill tape, but with a polish and accessibility unique to big-budget mainstream rap. Both also pay homage to New York rap superstars, with Nines essentially remaking Jay-Z’s “Girls Girls Girls” on “Calendar” and Potter joining him on the Notorious B.I.G tribute, “What’s Beef”.

This leaves us a world away from Wiley drawing a line in the sand for grime as its own artform, but that’s evolution: perhaps UK rap no longer needs to differentiate itself from what’s going on in America, given that it’s not only competing, but, artistically at least, dominating. Whereas once, UK music of Black origin needed to carve out its own space, having done that countless times over the decades, the clearest and best path for rhymers today is expansion: taking influence from UK music’s past, American rap’s titans and a current musical landscape where they can (finally) land the chart hits we always knew they were capable of.

UK rappers will still have to compete against a larger American market, and current success can change on a dime, given the fickleness of the UK charts, but it’s hard to deny that British rap is in great health at a time when American rap feels exhausted on a mainstream level. Nevertheless, perhaps the greatest reason this feels different is that it’s hard to imagine us ever going back. The same way grime announced that UK MCing could exist on its own merits, and the way road rap declared that barring need not be attached to dance music, albums like Crop Circles 2 and Real Back In Style are a clear sign that UK rap will have a chart presence for the considerable future. Long may it reign.

Posted on July 06, 2023