How Nines Became One Of UK Rap’s Most Cherished Figures 💫

Words: Yemi Abiade
Photography: Henry Goodfellow

The first time I saw Nines in concert was in 2018, the moment where, in my mind, his appeal started to make a bit more sense. I was a new listener admittedly, not too familiar with his game at that point. Having recently started a job at XL Recordings—the record label that had released his second album, Crop Circle, just months before—I was able to meet and work with him closely, getting accustomed to his humble, laid-back demeanour.

On stage that night for his first headline show in London, free to perform after years of setbacks by the police barring him from playing due to weak claims of safety concerns, it was Nines’ time to shine. Though he wasn’t the most dynamic showman, the crowd weren’t there for that. Instead, with a flick of his hand and a handful of classic hood tracks in tow, his audience bellowed his bars back at him like he was Queen Bey incarnate. Grinning from ear to ear, Nina With The Nina was vindicated and that night held sentimental value for those who’d followed his journey from the backroads of his Church Road estate in North West London to one of the UK’s most beloved and cherished spitters.

Nines’ career has been the literal definition of putting in work. In just over a decade, the 33-year-old has released eight full-length projects and countless street anthems, written and directed three short films and earned the praise of publications and hoods across the country. Feeding his fans with vivid accounts of moving drugs and helping his people, he has maintained a uniqueness grounded in his incredibly wide, creative mind that has struck a chord with the UK rap scene and beyond. At this point, the Harlesden rapper carries an air of mystique around him. Not too dissimilar to the aura J Hus has in that, though not the most musically active, the scene hangs onto their every move, clamouring for more output. He can attribute this to his previous work, which has been elevated to hood classics.

Mixtapes like From Church Rd. To Hollywood, Gone Till November, Loyal To The Soil and One Foot In—released between 2012 and 2015—served as the absolute best of the UK’s second road rap generation, in the midst of peers such as Potter Payper, Tion Wayne, Squeeks and Fredo, to name but a few. Studio albums One Foot Out, Crop Circle and Crabs In A Bucket served as glossier updates of the gritty stories that brought him to the dancery, while his short films for Crop Circle and Crabs In A Bucket took his words and turned them into movies, sitting on over six million total YouTube views (his latest for Crop Circle 2 just landed and is currently doing the rounds), all while keeping a loyal community of fans who have propelled his music to mainstream success, with Crabs In A Bucket becoming Nines’ first number one album in 2020.

On top of slick, hypnotic lyrical prowess and an incredibly conceptual mind, turning even the simplest visual ideas into cinematic works of art, authenticity is a key part of Nines’ artistic arsenal. That same authenticity has blurred the lines between his music career and his reality, and he has faced legal trouble throughout the years, even being jailed in 2021 for importing cannabis into the UK—a charge that rings true the content of his music; that itch to build an empire through illicit means in direct contrast to leading a straight life through music. Nines’ real life is the result of this tension, but that’s what it is: real. The kind of material that entices listeners looking for legitimate street rappers.

But study his catalogue and you hear the story of a young man trying to transcend the environment that tried to box him in. A young man with a nuanced outlook that can’t be confined to what he sees in his ends. An MC who raps that he sold so much weight that his scale broke (“Nu Crack”), and later acknowledges his government name came from a slave owner (“Venting”). A truly altruistic man of the people, who would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it and hands out turkeys to residents at Christmas, he has understood his potential for driving social change for his ends from day dot—a scope that has only widened with his increasing stardom. We’ve been privy to him addressing this juggling act in his music, with increasingly exciting possibilities and results.

Understandably owing to legal problems, the wait between his last effort and his new, scene-shifting album, Crop Circle 2, has been the longest drought we’ve had to endure, but he never disappoints. In fact, he continues to surpass even the scene’s loftiest expectations. Part 2 channels Nines’ storytelling flair and ear for glossy production into possibly the broadest and most cohesive project of his illustrious career. With guest slots from every corner of the scene—Wretch 32, Skrapz, Kojey Radical, Clavish, Potter Payper, Nafe Smallz and mor—Nines’ cinematic scope reaches crescendos throughout, from the rags to riches narrative of “Highly Blessed” to the spin-the-block cut “Line Of Fire Pt. 6” (my personal favourite; shouts to Little Torment on the last verse).

Rather than a complete evolution, Nines’ creative approach finds new forms of life thanks to the efforts of Jerome Williams, Show N Prove, Monte Booker and more on production. This trait has served him well all these years, from the Churches to the charts. Much has been said about the UK scene’s lack of productivity so far in 2023 and, as if he has been listening to us the whole time, Nina has stepped up and been counted. Whether or not he vanishes into the ether soon, his mark on the year has been dealt, another tick on the checklist of his growing legacy. We’ll be sure to bump Crop Circle 2 as the seasons change, as well as celebrate North West’s finest while he’s still around to smell the flowers.

Crop Circle 2 is out now.

Posted on May 03, 2023