Words: Yemi Abiade

In 2011, grime was dead, or so the cynics said. The scene’s legends were forced to abscond their origins in the midst of a music industry yet to see the genre’s value, trading fiery underground bar-filled bangers for electro-pop leathered chart-toppers with a hint of edge. For those who made the transition, this was the only way to make money from their music and reach artistic maturation, and the likes of Dizzee, Chip, Wiley and Tinie took it in their stride as they became new-age pop stars. Meanwhile, the underground hadn’t stifled and stalwarts such as Jme, Footsie, P Money and more, trudged away at making grime in its purest form despite the public perception that it had reached its creative peak.

In the middle of these two worlds was Skepta, who would lead the charge for grime in its purist form gate-crashing the industry years later, but at the time, was heading down the same path as his mainstream-chasing peers. The man from Meridian had just released Doin’ It Again, his third albuma visible and audible departure from previous opuses Greatest Hits and Microphone Champion. Though the latter had experimented with glossier, more accessible sounds (and even a Jay Sean feature), Doin’ It Again fully expounded on a new artistic direction for Skeppy. A clear attempt at breaking the mainstream, the album included the infamous remix to P Diddy’s “Hello Good Morning” and assists from N-Dubz and former EastEnders actress Preeya Kalidas. But Skepta sounded uncomfortable and conflicted throughout, making for an altogether hollow and vacuous listen. The critical backlash towards the album was telling: NME even went as far to say that the album represented “the sound of grime destroying itself”.

On top of this, the tide was turning for the grime-cum-pop stars who were on the wane as the industry lost interest. An experiment gone awry, the only option for many—including Skepta—was to go back to the drawing board. Buoyed by a desire to prove the doubters wrong, 2012 saw the release of his magnum opus, Blacklisted, a project representing his philosophy to a tee. A purposeful move away from the commercial-sounding songs of old, Skepta doubled down on grime, crafting a moody, lonely and defiant caricature of the man himself. From the beginning of the intro, “Same Shit Different Day” with its piercing synths and ‘fuck Skepta’ opening cry, the signs say this is a wholly different experience about to take place. Skepta is focused, free from the shackles that chasing the mainstream represented on an artistic level and addressing the scene from the mountaintop like a prophet.

The cloudy “Castles” follows, an almost psychedelic listen levelled by cutthroat lyricism, from addressing the teacher who said Skepta would never amount to anything—“My teacher told me I’m a sideman, I told her to remember me, now they wanna email me, asking if I can talk to the kids in assembly”—to addressing then-London mayor Boris Johnson in a post-riot landscape—“Tell Boris he’s lucky that I made it rapping, I would’ve been looting too.” Skepta serves as a no-holds-barred commentator, capturing the harshness of young black disenfranchisement in Britain, in just enough of a dose to capture a vivid imagination of an alternate reality for Junior had music not become his outlet.

But it is Track 5, “Ace Hood Flow”, where Blacklisted reaches its defining moment. A vitriolic mission statement in every sense, Skepta decries the current state of UK rap and grime and the appropriation of American flows and subject matter (something Skepta himself can be accused of). He admonishes himself of his sins as it were, finally finding comfort in his duty to stay true to himself and his grime roots. The unfiltered attitude of “Ace Hood Flow” is one that has come to define the mentality of grime’s resurgence, and Skepta was the perfect person to let it be known at such a scale that the underground would take in its stride.

Blacklisted continues to exhibit his traits into a tight package; the open-ended introspection of tracks such as “Mastermind” and “Simple Life”, and even the residue of his electro-pop past with the nostalgic-sounding “Lay Her Down”, shows Skepta hasn’t given up on the mainstream just yet. Or maybe it was just a blip, because he hasn’t traversed such terrains since. Blacklisted is a maturation of the man and his music, a symbol that the challenge of achieving commercial success was necessary to facilitate his return to grime in such a big way. In the face of existential crisis and artistic crosswords, he proved he could dig deep within himself and find affirmation in his music and messages and find complete happiness.

The MC hasn’t looked back since and his achievements are too long to list at this point, but most importantly, he has come to represent popular British culture in a way that only returning to his roots could’ve orchestrated. Blacklisted isn’t just Skepta’s triumph, but a triumph of grime’s perseverance and a rallying cry for his peers to follow his path back to the hallowed halls of the genre, which would allow for Meridian Dan’s “German Whip”, Skepta’s “That’s Not Me” and “Shutdown” worldwide approval for grime and its breakthrough into popular British culture on its own terms.

To fully understand Skepta, his place in the grime scene and the direction the genre was headed, is to understand the intention and execution behind his greatest project to date. Blacklisted is the quintessential, we’ll-do-things-our-way statement coming from the underground then and since.

Collage images in thumbnail by Olivia Rose, Tim & Barry and Steve Stills.

Posted on June 28, 2018