ALBUM REVIEW: slowthai - TYRON
A conflicted project
slowthai has already made a seismic impact in his short career, carving out a sound and image unmistakably his own amidst a crowded British rap scene. Abrasive from the start, his voice quickly became a champion for Britain's disaffected youth; immediately fearless and uncompromising, and happy to lift a model of Boris Johnson's decapitated head at the Mercury Prize Awards in 2019. His projects ricocheted from vicious and cold blooded to, at times, disarmingly pain-stricken, gaining notoriety for a level of honesty that first appeared on 2018’s RUNT EP and then refined on his critically acclaimed full length debut Nothing Great About Britain - becoming our seventh favourite record of 2019 in the process. slowthai’s punk influences, anti-establishment message and infectiously rebellious attitude have given him a platform as a lovable rogue, propelling him into the limelight as a voice for a young generation unified against Britain's Conservative party.
His outlandish, outspoken qualities have had their negative aspects though, with the controversy that followed his inappropriate conduct at the NME Awards with Katherine Ryan this time last year causing a significant backlash online, and rightfully so. Eliciting a feverous condemnation from the British media, albeit one largely misreported by people who weren't even in the room, slowthai's advances on Katherine Ryan stained his reputation. Our very own editor-in-chief Ben Wheadon experienced this event first-hand (and the severed head incident, too - Ed.) and dissected it for our site, but while disputing some of the distorted presentations of the night and ensuring that Katherine Ryan's consensual flirtation was reported on, remained clear to state that the night developed into a moment of shameful behaviour from the Northampton artist.
slowthai's actions immediately brought his status of a ‘man of the people’ into question. The backlash progressed; challenging how a figure who sought equality could act the way he did, leading to battles scrawled inexhaustibly across social media over whether or not he deserved to be "cancelled." However, Ryan publicly brushed off the events on Twitter and Slowthai issued a sincere apology, returning the unfortunately titled "Hero" award he had been presented with. The whole issue had been resolved and should not have needed to be recounted here.
Unfortunately, this context is needed. Given the sequence of events, pre-album single ‘CANCELLED’ is so utterly perplexing in it's tone-deafness that it’s hard to dive into the album without considering its place in the project. It’s a song so arrogant in design that even an appearance from everyone’s favourite grime uncle Skepta only manages to stoke the fire even further. This is a far cry from a genuine reflection about the issues of 'being cancelled', the distortion of social media or the removal of a person's capacity for growth - instead functioning only as a boastful set of reflections on the immunity from consequence that a certain level of success brings. It's a celebration of the attention; the wealth; the awards that have granted both rappers the ability to the dangle a taunting assertion "how you gonna cancel me?" in front of the faces of people who had been rightfully angry with his actions and he had earnestly apologised to previously. The track could have been a highlight, fitting into the brash first half of the project, but instead its heavy handed pettiness negates a lot of the rhetoric slowthai had used to describe TYRON, as a project that explicitly aims for genuine introspection, titled with his first name:
“I am far from perfect, but I’ve learnt a lot about myself while creating this album and I will continue to grow into a better person for myself and aim to be a reflection of what I want to see in this world" (NME)
The two halves of TYRON function as two sides of the artist, one side provocative and the other more introspective and vulnerable, both co-dependent in a "yin and yang"; a dichotomy of light and dark, but this track makes absolutely no sense for an artist who is supposed to be growing as a person. In truth, it calls into question the very sincerity of the apologies and remorse that came before it. Diverting into an edgy ‘I can say whatever I want’ claim that comes dangerously close to one of Kanye West’s most notorious Achilles heels, this feels like it’s supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek jab at censorship - but it falls far short of any humour. It only functions to dilute the discourse around the artist and stamp a question mark on the motivations of the rest of the project, entirely for the worse.
Thankfully, the rest of the first half avoids this sentiment, instead featuring slowthai return to his mischievous best, strutting over a distinctly transatlantic and trap-heavy sound, but the aftertaste of 'CANCELLED' never truly dissipates. The first six tracks shift away from the distinctly British roots of his punk and grime influenced debut and further into the territory of modern American trap music, creating a snappy collection of capitalised hard hitters. It’s interesting to see him navigate these sounds, switching into Playboi Carti style baby cadences on the opener ‘45 SMOKE’, and on the woozy ‘MAZZA’ with a memorable feature from his AWGE label leader ASAP Rocky. Tracks fire off quickly here, with seamless transitions into tracks like ‘VEX’ and ‘WOT’ as slowthai shifts through lethal flows, his voice providing a jittery focal point for the circling of murky adlibs, while ‘DEAD’ shifts through vignettes of his life; football, friends, nicotine, with a staccato hook from Kwes Darko. The performances are snarling and wicked, a showcase of his ability to spit over beats that will undoubtedly endear him to international audiences.
‘PLAY WITH FIRE’ strikes a dextrous chord between the two halves, an instrumental ridden with gunshots providing a backdrop for the first show of vulnerability, pushing against the scathing line “soft lad, stop acting like a bitch.” The change in cadence from the snarling first half signifies a thematic volta into the second half, beginning to pencil in the rawness that had endeared slowthai to so many in his rise to prominence. The portrayal of a victimised figure and the anger directed at his naysayers throughout the first half is a discourse which often overplayed, leading to some of the substance and meaning of his reflection being lost, at times falling into the slightly predictable. It’s perhaps a symptom of an artist attempting the ambitious undertaking of a study of the self, after previously directing anger outwards on NGAB, tackling systemic issues.
This is not to say that it all needs to be heartfelt and move at a slower pace, the performances across the first half are certainly enjoyable, but when slowthai engages with the theme of interiority more directly he regains some of the urgency that made his debut so compelling. ‘i tried’ reels off admissions, “always wanted muscles, lack of strength made me headstrong”, as rhubarb, oolong and manuka honey become the quotidian anchors to paint a contemplative scene, delicately avoiding any slip into self-pity. ‘focus’ is filled with quotable lines as he appears solitary but self-affirming, never slowing, always pushing; “no one I can lean on so I'm limping with a walking stick". And while ‘push’ wafts dangerously close to the airy balladry of 2000s Eminem, ‘terms’ with Denzel Curry and Dominic Fike is immaculately catchy and impactful, proof that he can pen a meaningful reflection on being misinterpreted.
The final three tracks essentially collect themselves in antithesis to the project's first three. ‘nhs’ strikes the base of the bisected album theme, offering questions dealing with two sides of a coin, "what’s a flight without turbulence?" and unvarnished looks at autonomy and depression, contrasting the fact that you’ll "feel chubby" if you “suck in your tummy, when you're starin' at the mirror”, with “try breathing, you might find freedom”. It’s a heartfelt message to not take something for granted and to appreciate the moments where it’s there, hence the title, a reference to the dichotomy of the claps that rung through the first lockdown in long overdue appreciation for the often neglected National Health Service. The glowing softness of ‘feel away’ is gently feathered by a glittering vocal performance from James Blake, while ‘adhd’ wrestles and chews down on itself, trailing into sadness, as he leaves a choked voicemail before breaking into a final anguished, unfurling and cathartic verse.
TYRON is an ambitious concept, and slowthai navigates the more autobiographical missives delicately, but in turning his gaze inwards he throws away some of the propulsive, concise bite of his debut. Like the tree on the cover or the flowers he is adorned with in many photoshoots, the second half of this project is an artist searching deeply for personal growth and it's quite beautiful at points, but the presence of 'CANCELLED' on the first half only functions to dilute this message with insincerity, especially as one of the three lead singles. The commitment to showing a shallow side to this inner conflict could've been carried off very well without the track, and the brilliance of 'MAZZA' and 'WOT' unfortunately only make this more obvious. There are highs and lows here, and it feels like the sound of an artist who is still learning to get out of his own way. In digging deep, slowthai sometimes strikes pure gold, at times simply cold hard ground. If one thing can be deduced, he remains as intriguing as ever.
- 6.8 -
'PLAY WITH FIRE', 'i tried', 'feel away'
This article was written and edited by Fin Cousins, a postgraduate literature student studying at Kings College, London. He loves sport, music and writing and he is still waiting for Love Island to accept his application. He also made our logo.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He is also a Fleet Foxes shill.
Do you make music? Follow our Instagram and send us a DM. We’ll contact you if we like what we hear. In the meantime, you can like us on Facebook and subscribe to our mailing list below to stay up to date with our ramblings.