When I meet slowthai for breakfast in East London; to discuss life, his monumental rise and the new album, he tells me without hesitation that he wants listeners to feel like “it’s ok to be yourself”. In fact, during our meeting I was struck by how he’d managed to retain such originality within a scene where there is heavy pressure to suppress what’s honest. But, as we spoke, it quickly became clear that his message went beyond the theme of personal authenticity. Similar to slowthai’s lyrics, our conversation was peppered with thought-provoking insights gleaned from his life’s story, which proved, like all personal stories, to be as multi-dimensional and complex as the person who lives it.
It was obvious that within the narrative of his own life there are at least two sides to every story, as well as a multiplicity of layers within each of us. ‘TYRON’, the second album from the Prince of Northampton is a much-needed reminder of this human complexity.
TYRON was formed against the backdrop of an unforgiving climate where judgement, shaming and underdeveloped and simplistic conceptions of other people are fashionable. Instead of succumbing to such simplicity, TYRON presents an artist who is unabashedly complicated and willing to explore themes of loneliness, identity, self-acceptance, and the difficulties in becoming an individual.
TYRON presents slowthai at his rawest. If he is a spokesman of any identity, it is not the physical kind – but the mental state of unorthodoxy. What sets slowthai apart from his peers is his distinctive aggrieved sound, a hybrid between Grime in its infancy, and a coarseness comparable to the London Calling era of punk. You could say that slowthai is a quintessentially (vexed) British artist.
His out-of-the-box approach to self-expression is one that has stuck with him from his infancy. As a youngster, when his friends would tease him about his unusual fashion choices, he’d confidently retort “I just like weird things!”, retaining these oddities is what gives slowthai his enticing edge.
Unlike the political overtone of slowthai’s debut album Nothing Great About Britain which took listeners on a journey through slowthai’s turbulent upbringing and his stance on British life – this self-titled follow up, TYRON is a melodic dive through the expansive landscape of his feelings. He tells me, “the strongest people I know go through dark moments” and on this album he is strong enough to reveal some of his own struggles. This time around, we’re invited to listen to the ticking of his inner monologue: The arrogant, the delicate and the conflicted.
His honest self-expression on his debut garnered the respect of rappers and producers across the Atlantic, some of which appear on TYRON. Denzel Curry and
Dominic Fike join slowthai on ‘terms’ , unafraid to bite back, this track deals with the ‘terms’ and conditions of fame and the inevitable twisting and misinterpreting of his words.
slowthai’s versatility extends beyond his eclectic influences, he is also well versed in the highs and lows of feeling. Although he is no stranger to embracing his dark side, he isn’t always so resolute. TYRON is a fusion of the playful child and the afflicted adult. The album uses religious symbolism to grapple with questions of morality. On ‘i tried’, Ty says “if hell is meant for sinning heaven’s never been for me” as if he’s unable to see himself beyond the ‘satan son’ conception held by his detractors. Ty allows us to see the vulnerable parts of him, both in his music and candidly online. In a poetic and confessional open letter posted earlier in the year he questions: “But am I wrong for wanting to belong?” This conflict between the desire for authenticity and validation is audible on the closing line of the album’s final song ‘adhd’ as he cries; “touch me tenderly, heaven let me in”.
The success of slowthai isn’t hard to grasp, he’s one of the few artists where popularity hasn’t compromised his honesty. Relatable to us all, Ty tells me he has been in “his own wars in his mind”, but he is determined to make it out of the “rubble and rise like a diamond”, as he raps on ‘focus’. His ability to bear his imperfections and contradictions makes TYRON an album that is the antithesis of a culture of purity. A resistance to the rising tide of moral one-upmanship and the pervasive self righteousness that blinds us to our own fallibility.
There are two sides to TYRON. Of the 14 tracks, the first 7 re-introduce us to the classic hubris, machismo, and braggadocio typical of rap music. What’s atypical is his semi-inebriated playfully slurred, dynamic flow over equally diverse production. The opening track is conveniently named ‘45 SMOKE’ (presumably, after the cloud of it he left in the aftermath of an eventful year.) Playing on his bad-boy image, the energetic freestyle is an announcement to the doubters. 45 SMOKE could be viewed as a taunt, a mosh-pit motivator, heavy with a post-punk distortion; that warns that he will always be himself at all costs, a refusal to play nice, and a reminder of the rugged roots that shaped him.
The second track on TYRON challenges the digital culture in song form. Skepta and Ty join up again to bring us ‘CANCELLED’. The track addresses the overzealous practice of tearing people down in the name of ‘progress’.
If the first half of the album allows us to appreciate the progression of slowthai’s flow, wit and gusto – the second half introduces us to the sensitive, introspective and earnest side of Tyron. ‘focus’ is a song of street wisdom, an ode to self-reliance. In the internet age it’s a crucial and simple blueprint for the fleeting attention caused by information overload. slowthai’s advice? ‘‘focus on some other shit”.
The album’s first single revealed to the public, ‘feel away’ is maybe the only love song on TYRON, appropriately featuring the connoisseur of isolated feels, James Blake. It’s not only romantic love but the familial kind, the song being a dedication to the memory of Ty’s baby brother Michael John who passed away shortly after his first birthday. The significance of ‘feel away’ being the opening single is that it is a far cry from slowthai’s high octane delivery experienced on Nothing Great About Britain’s leading track ‘Doorman’. With over a whole minute before the beat starts, the production is as light and idyllic as the first stages of a relationship, perhaps marking the beginning of a new relationship with the public.
The ingredients that brought slowthai rave reviews on his debut are on full display here. But what makes this album especially stand out is the breadth of inspiration that he draws from. We hear it on the vocal inflexions on ‘VEX’ to the 90’s New York boom-bap style on ‘i tried’, to the chilled guitar riffs on the hypnotic flow of ‘push’, reminiscent of the atmospheric quality of the Pixies. It is not purely rap but slowthai is the vanguard of a new generation of outcasts, who, thanks to the nature of streaming, boast a more diverse palette than ever before.
The album closing track, ‘adhd’ is a self-reflection of how one can “smile on the out, but, inside keep bleeding”. slowthai is aware of having to ‘put a face on’ which is the polar opposite from the boisterous opening of 45 SMOKE. The melody is infused with a slow and dazed, marijuana-induced melancholy, yanking open the doors to contemplation. But the track soon begins to oscillate between extremes: animated to pensive, melancholic to excitable, explosive to gentle, all captured in the volatile changes of his flow; ‘adhd’ is erratic, much like the medical condition itself. The ultimate breakdown of the track takes place in the last verse of the album, in which Ty’s venomous frustrations are unleashed in a guttural scream, as if he is begging to be released. Beneath the excitable veneer of slowthai’s persona is a battle between who he is, the person he has been, and who he is becoming.
What is refreshing about TYRON is that the album doesn’t shy away from the mess. If anything he reminds us to make peace with our own inner junkyard, to evolve, create, and learn from it. The album is an antidote for a world filled with suffocating expectations and manicured virtual lives that are often mistaken for reality. It is a call to aspire to wholeness instead of goodness. Like Ty says, if you can “love the world for its flaws, you’ll never be disappointed”. slowthai shows us that if we stop seeking perfection, we might discover our own treasures, and similarly, if we can find the tragic beauty in imperfection, we might begin to appreciate people for who they are instead of hating them for what they are not.