Is UK Rap Lacking Artist Development?

Words: Yemi Abiade

Watching classic Sidewinder sets never gets old. The intensity of the MCs, the thrill of the crowd, the sharpening of lyrical skill on show—everything deftly combines to create not just a rush of nostalgia but a sense of pride in seeing your favourite spitters, in embryonic form, figure out the kind of artist they want to be for the future. In the present day of the UK’s burgeoning Black music scene, the fact that everyone finds their own way of getting heard is most empowering. Whether it’s cyphers and freestyles or building an artistic catalogue over time, this new era of musicians make the most of the resources around them to break themselves and their talents to the masses.

Everyone’s development is different. For many of us who grew up on the first grime generation, before record labels were ready to capitalise on the Black British musical renaissance and when social media was dormant, mediums such as pirate radio and DVDs like Risky Roadz and Lord Of The Mics were evident signs of lyricists honing their skills in real time. We saw Wiley clash Kano, Skepta clash Devilman, and the legendary Fuck Radio sets courtesy of The Movement. Skepta, for example, grinded for over a decade before leading grime’s resurgence in 2014, culminating in his 2016 Mercury Prize-winning album Konnichiwa. Now, many from that era, including Kano, Ghetts, D Double E and more, are releasing some of their best work, owing to the grind they put in early on. Their hard work was visible, palpable, and easy to decipher.

It is fair to say that, in 2021, things have changed. Factors such as social media, streaming and intensified contact with the music industry at large have shifted the artistic goalposts, rewarding numerical success and online fame with a torrent of riches. These days, a young artist with one song that catches viral wind is given the keys to the Garden of Eden in the form of playlisting, record deals, brand partnerships, big-look freestyles and interviews—all signs that they have blown up and become one of the hottest in the game, albeit at the expense of being a fully-developed artist.

While the likes of Risky Roadz and LOTM have been replaced by GRM’s Daily Duppy and Charlie Sloth’s Fire In The Booth as visual mediums, the focus has shifted from providing a space for artists to develop to showcasing viral stars. That leaves little room for promising talent to sharpen their skills in real time and the backlash can be telling. Recently, social media rumbled over the stage presence of South London drillers Kwengface and K-Trap, who rapped alongside Bouncer during his much-publicised MMA fight with Armz Korleone, suggesting improvement was needed on their live show steez. And while UK drill has blossomed of late, many of its acts are still in the feeling-out stages of their careers artistically—despite their respective commercial achievements—largely because the transition from internet to chart stars has been so rapid, allowing for minimal development.

Meanwhile, last August, former Rap Game UK contestant BRYN—who has been dropping music since 2018—delivered a Fire In The Booth freestyle, with many YouTube and Twitter comments decrying the platform’s ‘loss of prestige’ and her perceived lack of ‘hard graft’ as a result. But, in this metrics-driven era, BRYN’s appearance makes perfect sense to FITB’s bottom line: views and traffic. She is by no means the finished article, yet she is currently a popular enough rapper, and that is true of many young spitters invited onto platforms as significant as FITB. But questions do need to be asked of these artists. Do they know how to command a live stage? Are they comfortable exploring other musical avenues? Are they media trained? These factors are integral to the overall artistic experience and how they’re able to move forward with their careers.

The industry has a lot to answer for in this regard. From day one, it has been built on its ability to strike when the iron is hot with an artist and reap the financial rewards. Whether artists are ready for the look of a big-time freestyle or millions of streams is irrelevant because of what they bring to music platforms and labels: the look that they’re spotting these artists early on. Take UK rap’s new favourite geezer, ArrDee, whose first released song as a solo artist came in January of this year. He now already has a UK number one single—the remix of Russ Millions and Tion Wayne’s “Body”, in which he’s featured—a Daily Duppy and tens of millions of YouTube views to his name. Too early? Maybe. But once the iron isn’t hot anymore, these artists are potentially left with no identity, and the chances of lasting longevity in their careers are compromised. Not3s and Ramz, for example—whose viral hits, “Addison Lee” and “Barking” respectively, set them up for success early on in their careers—seem to have peaked already, relying on the same formulas that made them famous instead of growing in conjunction with their music, something reflected in the fact they have not been able to reach the commercial level of their prior huge hits.

This isn’t me with my oldhead cap on, complaining about the current state of play or bemoaning new artists who haven’t paid their dues. If anything, they’re victims too. These artists are given the world prematurely and might not always know what to do with it. But really, they just represent what happens when the scene’s gatekeepers reward stats over the grind, popularity over painstaking hard work. UK rap is popular culture now, and it’s continuing to prove capable of delivering huge hits and moments, but the balance between this and salient artistic evolution is favouring the former. Therein lies a responsibility within the industry to ensure that balance is evenly tipped, so that artists can be capable of delivering massive hits while truly finding themselves creatively. The likes of Dave and Little Simz, pillars of the scene, are living proof of this balance working effectively and the benefit of all involved. The industry’s always going to industry, but it must do right by these artists so that a decade into their careers, they’re still contributing to the scene’s growth and are accomplished artistically. In other words, if they’re not careful, the big looks of today may scupper the big looks of tomorrow.

A collective effort from artist teams, labels and music platforms should strive to ensure that these artists become everything that they can be, investing in every step of artistic growth, from music making to presentation. Instant success which, granted, no one will reject, threatens to blockade what you might become because you’re ultimately stuck to what you currently are. There is still time for many of the new generation, but the fruits of the industry should be rewarded as organically as the artistic journey itself.

Posted on October 07, 2021