Slowthai’s Presence Is Needed More Than Some May Like To Admit

Words: Yemi Abiade
Photography: Crown & Owls

When a drunken slowthai staggered to the stage at the 2020 NME Awards, no one would’ve suspected the damage that was to come. To the horror of the live audience, his lewd actions toward host and comedian Katherine Ryan, before jumping off the stage to attempt an assault on a heckler, were the talk of the music industry. In the immediate aftermath, social media moved swiftly to ‘cancel’ him after his inappropriate actions. The dice was thrown; slowthai, for all intents and purposes, was done out here.

Fast forward a year, armed with a new project in TYRON—which gained him his first official number one album last week—and his demons seemingly in his rear view, the 26-year-old rapper has emerged stronger both personally and musically to reclaim his standing as one of the UK’s most unorthodox and original artists of modern times. Whether you view this triumph through the lens of redemption or growth, slowthai has snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, showcasing the transcendent nature of his music to endear the nation.

It still feels like yesterday when a young Tyron Frampton started making noise, initially capturing the imagination with the lowkey “Jiggle” and the frantic “T N Biscuits”. His arrival felt like a breath of fresh air, or perhaps more appropriately, a hurricane, with his unrelenting bars—ranging from incoherent yelling to cooling, biting social commentary—offering insight to life in his town of birth, Northampton. His early music took you to the trenches of his ends, christened as ‘NN’ after its postcode, where deep-fried Mars bars mixed with hood activity amidst the tensions of growing up poor in the sticks.

This notion of Britishness, that of the working class, became his brand—a motif he would later refine to paint the colourful picture of his life and upbringings. With close friend Kwes Darko on production duties, slowthai’s music meandered between the grittiest hip-hop and iciest grime that evoked equal levels of darkness (“Murder”) and thrill (“North Nights”). He spoke for the unspoken in the midst of a country shifting towards Brexit, with a government shunting the poor at every turn, and racial tensions on the rise.

Everything changed with the release of his debut album, Nothing Great About Britain, in 2019, a biting political statement that let loose the fabric of who slowthai really is: anti-establishment and unconventional. Carrying a clay bust of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s head that summer added yet more shock value to his arsenal as slowthai became a symbol for a new kind of outspokenness. With his Mercury Prize nomination for NGAB coming soon after its drop, he was no longer an underground upstart but an industry darling set for greatness.

We know now that slowthai took advantage of his situation, delving into heavy drug and alcohol use, reaching its nadir with the NME incident, but a life readjustment has seemingly done his life and career the world of good. “As a person, I’m trying to grow constantly,” he told The Needle Drop this month. “I have to take a look and reflect on what I do and take the steps forward to move differently. Without mistakes, you’re never gonna learn.”

Which brings us to the present day and new album TYRON, a significant level-up both lyrically and musically. Where NGAB looked outward to his surroundings, his new effort—split into two sides, much like his on-wax personality—digs into touching moments of introspection. Side 1 is packed with bouncy, aggressive bangers with a grime and trap flair, but he is composed and poignant on Side 2 as he raps in his regular vocal register over sadder, melancholic production, adding emotional nuance to the album and far outshining his more abrasive side. His overall journey throughout TYRON is powerful as he chronicles shifting to points of adrenaline-fuelled vitality to deep, inescapable despair. By the album’s end, this dichotomy remains with the acknowledgement that good and bad days will follow in equal measure, but that’s synonymous with the journey of life.

slowthai’s enduring musical quality is the ability to wholeheartedly wear his heart on his sleeve and own his faults. He lives his truth both in life and in song, undeterred by what people think of him and driven by the desire to represent the misfits—those on the fringes of society with their own baggage but rarely with a voice. From 2017’s I WISH I KNEW and 2018’s RUNT EPs to his two studio albums, slowthai has proven to be their vessel. Very few artists of his ilk, often labelled ‘alternative’, break the glass ceiling of the scene in the UK that is seemingly over them, digging into their psyche as forensically as he does. But that he has been able to do so demonstrates how penetrative his voice and messages have always been.

Bringing in the likes of Skepta, A$AP Rocky, James Blake, Gorillaz and Disclosure for a number of collaborations and guest features have taken his powers worldwide and, despite one moment of madness and irresponsibility, he has never lost sight of who he is and what he is here for. His rise from the underground to scoring a number one album with TYRON shows that he himself is in control of his destiny, rather than anything thrust upon him. Which makes his every W that much sweeter.

“I know who the fuck I am,” he told The Needle Drop. “I never have no ill-feeling. I’m about championing people and making everyone feel equal and like they’re lifted up. I’m here for the people that need it.” He’ll excite and he’ll offend, but slowthai’s presence in British rap is needed more than some may like to admit.

Credit: Crowns and Owls

Posted on February 24, 2021