On Human Writes, North London rapper Shay D’s sophomore album, the artist harnesses all her emotions, from bitterness to bravado to deliver an intense, hard hitting project that definitely requires multiple listens to digest. Drawing on the pain of broken relationships, both familial and romantic, struggles with mental health and burning ambition, Shay D takes us on a journey through her life, expertly traversing both poetry and hip-hop along the way. A piece of work to be consumed in its entirety for full effect, it nevertheless has a few individual highlights that help it to pop.
The opening track, ‘It Is What It Is’, is a demonstration of the rappers adept wordplay; over an old school hip-hop drum loop, she immediately demonstrates how comfortable she is tackling personal issues through her music, with bars about her family and how certain times she needs to just “woman up”. This lyric, flipping the entrenched misogynistic trope ‘man up’, which is still agonisingly common, is not a mere throwaway line either, throughout the album there is an explicit focus on the meaning of womanhood and the struggles that women still face in an overtly patriarchal society. At times Shay D is unable to contain our resentment of this fact, on ‘Fathers’ her distrust in men – borne of the relationships she’s had in both childhood and adulthood, but particularly with her own father – is aimed at all of them, even “daddies pushing prams”. However this is no mere anti-male polemic, the artist is full of self-awareness as she recites the line “How I hate myself for hating them”, a touchingly human moment that more than anything captures the pain she’s experienced.
As the album progresses the resentment is transformed into defiant calls for female empowerment, none more so than on ‘Suffragettes’, a track recently used in a Harvey Nichols campaign celebrating 100 years since the female vote was gained. The beat features dark synths over a rhythmic beat reminiscent of a marching band, a fitting backdrop for Shay D’s cries of “What do we want? Equality! When do we want it? Now!”. In an industry and artform dominated by male voices, the North Londoner’s voice rings out twice as loud and her ability on the beat further enhances the power of her words.
On ‘Spit For Me’ the refrain “I got her into it, she never liked rap I got her in to it” seems to be a reference to the lack of female rappers in the game, and how others might try to take credit for their success. The tracks is bubbling with energy and aggression, which is why it was the perfect choice for the album’s first single, but the content is on point too, a perfect combination of braggadocio and social commentary. The rapper asserts her dominance on the beat whilst acknowledging the assumptions that people make about her as a woman, particularly a Persian woman, and blowing them away.
As we get deeper into the album the focus once again turns to relationship struggles and the effect that they can have on you. The poem ‘Cuts Deep’ acts as a segue into the track ‘Better Days’ with devastatingly hard-hitting lines such as “it hurts too much to see me lift my head above your pride, doesn’t it?” setting the scene. It’s perfectly sets the tone for the tune which follows, a story about a relationship in its death throes. Passing reference is made to past difficulties in the relationship such as an abortion, but the focus is on how they are both trapped in the relationship, “mixing up love with security of habit”. It’s a bleak reflection upon why people sometimes stay in doomed relationships, but one that is expertly told.
Heavy as the preceding material is, the album wraps up on an undeniably positive note, over a simple beat composed mainly of piano chords Shay D looks back on her childhood and how much she has overcome since then. As ever sharp wordplay is never far away as she finishes off the first verse “feeling moments of glory when I step up to kill/ The mic on the daily, how many do we rip?/ You remember the score baby it’s that epic shit”. Faisal Salah kills it on the hook, with the track climaxing to almost ballad-like levels of epicness and empowerment as he proclaims “And still we rise, from the darkest of nights till we see the morning sky”. On the remaining bars Shay D finally manages to let go of her bitterness, and extols the virtues of forgiveness, hard work and doing good for good’s sake. At times it feels almost as if this is a letter to herself in times of struggle, but the message is applicable to everyone – “never give up, woman you resilient/ wipe a few tears tell mirror you are brilliant”.
On this her second studio album, Shay D establishes herself as an important voice in the hip-hop world. Tackling themes that are relevant to all of us from mental health, to poverty, to disappointment – her message of belief in yourself and never giving up is always strong. Whether she delivers it in the form of poetry or rap, intricate storytelling or raw, impactful lyrics, the message is central and it always makes its mark.
Stand out tracks: Spit for me, Can’t stand still, Better Days