It’s Knucks’ Time Now ⏰

Words: Yemi Abiade

If you’ve been following UK music closely for the past half decade, the slow ascent of artists deemed ‘underground’ or ‘alternative’ has been palpable. From Little Simz’s rise to Kojey Radical’s coronation earlier this year with his debut album, Reason To Smile, a slew of artists driven by their craft have carved out a lane seen by all, undeniable and omnipresent. Among this class resides the man known as Knucks. An MC’s MC with endless lyrical steez and a cool head on his shoulders, the North-West Londoner born Ashley Nwachukwu has been cooking in the so-called ‘underground’ for years, with his flavours slowly boiling to the surface since 2014 when he released his debut mixtape, Killmatic, a tribute to rap legend Nas’ immortal debut, Illmatic.

From the off, Knucks styled himself as a student of the game, eloquently painting pictures of life in his home of South Kilburn while weaving together golden age hip-hop with old-school soul sensibilities—via more contemporary UK sounds—for a laid back, worldly brand of rap. Later singles “21 Candles”, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “Vows” established him as a fixture in the game, earning so much respect that 2019 tape NRG 105 would carry a guest verse from UK rap veteran Wretch 32, as weighty a co-sign as you can ask for as an up-and-coming barrer. In an age where social media and streaming can blow an artist up in a matter of days, potentially robbing what could be an organic come-up, Knucks—with his memorable No Days Off tagline unveiling each track—has timed his every move with the deftest of poise. No decision has been wasted, rather calculated; every bar, track, feature and live show preparing him for a new ascent. Rather than flooding the market, each release has served a purpose, to peel all layers of Knucks the rapper, the producer and the artist.

Which brings us to his long-awaited third project, Alpha Place, a culmination of his journey so far. Here, over production by the likes of TSB, M1OnTheBeat, Venna, Ragz Originale, Dotnic, Geno and Knucks himself, the project deftly conveys the grittiness of UK rap but with elements of drill sensibilities that capture the oftentimes cold subject matter, typical of the evolution of his sound from the warmth and retro feel of his early years to a hardened shell. Named after the estate where he grew up, the opus carries a sentimental value that is typified by the earnest piano riffs and hustle and bustle of life that kick off opening track “Alpha House”, a nostalgic feel hardened by the metallic 808s and crunching drum patterns. Knucks retells his upbringing, of being a problem child, getting into fights at age 10 and his parents fearing the worst for him.

These tales of waywardness form the backbone of the set, which plays out almost like a cautionary tale of staying away from trouble and the lure of badness on the roads. From tales such as those on “Leon The Professional”, where he paints a picture of a young man fuelled by street life, to “Decisions”, where he reaffirms the need to live with the choices one makes in life, Knucks continues to prove himself as one of the UK’s nimblest storytellers, condensing complex intricacies of a topic into digestible chunks of game. Meanwhile, “Hide & Seek” sounds like a spiritual successor to the track that arguably put Knucks on the map, 2019’s “Home”, in its vivid presentation of the desperation of street life boiling over to violence. But Alpha Place has room for tender moments: loverboy Knucks takes full effect on “Send Nudes”, “Playa” and “Far”, while “Checkmate” emphasises wellness and looking out for the people you consider close to you. It shows Knucks is conscious and expansive, emphasising what might not be huge, ground-breaking topics but small details we may neglect in life.

I haven’t even started on the features—wide, varied and proof of the respect Knucks commands from all corners of the game. Stormzy comes through with a stellar verse rooted in stunting on “Die Hard”, M1llionz lays out bringing arms out to the opps but in the calmest fashion on “Decisions”, SL’s trademark composure shines on “Nice & Good”, Youngs Teflon’s imagery pops on “Bible”, and the equally potent contributions of Venna (“Alpha House”), Sainte (“Playa”), Shae Universe (“Decisions”) and Lex Amor (“Checkmate”) add to the project’s overall greatness. Each play their part but don’t dim Knucks’ light; in fact, his own presence acts as a shade for his guests to stay warm and thrive. By closing track “Three Musketeers” and its nod to Knucks’ past life as a grime MC, the feeling is that there’s still much on the table for the rapper to explore, both inwardly and outwardly, such is the depth of Knucks’ artistry. Ultimately, Alpha Place is a triumph of tight and imaginative storytelling, self-examination of one’s journey and social commentary rooted in a respect for the craft of rapping and effervescent delivery. Not once does it wane in quality, nor does it overdo its messages, leaving little time for error and maximum time for greatness.

Alpha Place should unlock new layers for Knucks, both critically and commercially, and he should take his rightful place among the elite of UK rap. Day ones will be vindicated in their investment in his journey, while new fans will be wowed by the completeness of the man at a turning point of his career. After a ten-year climb up the top, he deserves his moment in the sun, beaming with the knowledge that he did it his way.

Posted on May 06, 2022