Alternative, Grime, review, UK Rap

An Anthropology of the Streets: Nothing Great About Britain Review

Nothing Great About Britain marks the culmination of Slowthai’s progression from virtual unknown just a couple of years ago to rightly being considered as one of the artists right at the top of the UK rap game and “Britain’s most compelling new MC”. An eleven track anthology bookended by two searing polemics against class inequality in the UK and complemented by six of his previous singles as bonus tracks, Tyron Frampton’s debut album is the soundtrack of disenfranchised youth in Brexit-Britain. Much like Mike Skinners with ‘Original Pirate Material’ seventeen years ago, Slowthai, along with the help of his producer Kwes Darko and a handful of talented guest producers including Mura Masa, has created an album full of the dark and gritty yet humorous and familiar idiosyncrasies of life on the margins. 

I’m a product yeah they made me/ I wear chains like my grandad in slavery

Nothing great about Britain – Slowthai suggests that he’s a product of his environment

To properly investigate the themes of this album, it is helpful to start at the end. The final track on the album proper is called Northampton’s child, and it tells the story of Thai’s childhood and some of the struggles he’s been through. If Thai were an academic anthropologist it would be an acknowledgement of his own positionality, a revelation of his own subject position that has been marked by his experiences with poverty within one of the world’s richest and most unequal societies. In many ways this album could be seen as an anthropology of the streets, it is a study of the human condition and the struggle of the working-class against an antagonistic state, something which T himself highlights in the lyric “Mum took loans to make her home look nice/ Worked to the bone to put food on her side”. This is a classic example of the growing number of ‘working poor’ in Britain, a country where, despite having the world’s 7th largest economy, nearly 4 million people have been forced to turn to food banks at some point. The song discusses many of the issues that plague working class communities as a result of the stress and despair associated with poverty – his descriptions of an uncle with a drug habit and a physically abusive step-dad are heartbreakingly powerful and all too familiar.

Spring Boroughs near the newsies say that she’s using, carrying a pram/ Son wait here I’ll get you a juice quick, three flights and she’s gotta do two trips/ no electric back to the newsies, housing assocation’s moving/ fam to the eastern district

Northampton’s child – T reflects on his mothers struggles to house and provide for her family

Throughout the album, these are the kind of characters that Slowthai, or ‘Slow Ty’ – his original nickname, chooses to portray in a very deliberate manner. This is an album borne from the undocumented corners of austerity Britain, the places where the forces of New Labour, with their ASBOs and CBOs, and successive Tory governments, with their vicious cuts to public and social services, have coalesced to create an ‘underclass’ that is so often excluded from the mainstream media; whose stories are never their own to tell. Slowthai looks to redress that balance with the biographical nature of his lyrical content. The Mura Masa produced lead single ‘Doorman’ emphasises this character, with its incessant bass riff and strident, distorted and brashly delivered vocals reminiscent of the equally acerbic and political post-punk records that represented the same rebellious nature and political dissatisfaction of a prior generation. They lyrics themselves are grounded in the everyday, here depicting a typical Saturday night excursion – “doorman let me in the door/ spent all my wages you ain’t getting no more”, also echoing the DIY, anti-establishment and resolutely anti-glamorous nature of punk rock. Slowthai is in fact a master of the use of generic codes to emphasise his meaning, constantly grimey but never grime, full of soul but not quite soulful, his sound is saturated with the music of stalwarts of the scene. Whether he’s comparing himself to Dizzee and echoing The Streets, as he does in the first two verses of the album, or hitting us with a “Pow like lethal” his sound, whilst grounded in the rich musical culture of working class Britain, is always very much his own.

Gorgeous is one example of this pastiche of influences, a largely traditional US style hip-hop beat, built around a soul sample and produced by Kwes Darko, is paired with locally grounded lyrics including various different ‘first times’ for young Tyrone.

“Number 1 to my door, 16 go to brook/ Check Drew, go to farm where I first bun a zoot”.

gorgeous

The chorus is an irreverently cheerful repetition of the line “Five man deep and we all in cuffs”, an oft-repeated cultural reflection of the importance of struggle with the police in poor communities, where trouble with the law may be seen almost as a rite of passage. On ‘Grow Up’ Jaykae, one of just a handful of well-selected features, reflects along with Slowthai about the pressures and challenges of living in poverty and being forced into “growing up fast”. Both MCs highlight some of the everyday challenges that contribute to the day-to-day stress of poverty, from Ty’s “Out of order, every bathroom/ weighing up scores got half for a bastard/ pints and peanuts the life I choose” to Jaykae’s “Chicken and chips every day ain’t healthy/ ain’t had it hard if your mum and dad’s wealthy” and “can’t get a ten deck so I get twenty” – they highlight the unsafe and unsanitary conditions that permeate day to day life. Fittingly Jaykae concludes “still thank god every day I can emcee/just so nothing on the roads don’t tempt me” – a rumination echoed by nearly every MC who’s ever made material changes to their life through the reflection of their reality.

The reflection of reality is what this album is about at its very core. Slowthai, and the few guests he invites, portray life with no frills sewn to the facts, no bells or whistles, just a bare, brutal biography of Northampton’s estates and what they represent for so much of embattled Britain. Vulgar and vicious, tender and tortured, the fabric of life is laid out for all to see, and Slowthai portrays it in its full complexity: the highs and lows, the love, the hate and everything in-between is beautifully laid out for us to hear. As he seems to admit throughout the album, which gradually reveals that the title at least a little tongue-in-cheek, though there is much about Britain that isn’t great, there are elements that certainly are: a proud musical tradition is one of those things, and this debut album will doubtless, in time, be a part of that.

Rating 4.5/5

Highlights: Doorman, Grow Up, Northampton’s Child

*Disclaimer: I am not and do not claim to be from the same background as most of the artists that I write about. It is never my intention to speak for them but merely to try to unpick their words and listen to the stories that they themselves tell, drawing on my own knowledge and experience only where it seems appropriate.*

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