“Glastonbury 2019... This is crazy.” Stormzy, nearing the end of his still-talked-about headline performance in front of a 100,000-strong crowd, wanted to soak in this moment. The "Big For Your Boots" rapper moved from one stage to another, closer to his fans, in order to deliver an important message — a message of how he, along with many others, has pushed UK rap forward to this point of global recognition. “There’s been so many people that paved the way for me,” he said, listing Wiley, Dizzee Rascal, Skepta, and more, for a total of 65 artists.
“There’s been so many legends that have paved the way for me, but there’s a bag of us coming through right now,” he said. In between mentions of D-Block Europe and M Huncho was Nafe Smallz, an artist who has helped reinvent the sound of British rap by championing trap wave — a potent blend of smooth melodic flows, spacey vocals, and Autotune, as an instrument for his emotions.
“I think it is positive,” Nafe tells me last December about Stormzy’s shout-out. “I feel like a lot of people get to that position and don’t really give a shit about what is going on behind them, what’s going on, or where they’ve come from. He is still obviously very in tune with everything that is going on and how far his status has taken him, so I think that it's sick. It’s all love. Big ups to Stormzy.”
Grime has a history of being in-your-face with its intensity and eccentric lyricism, but Nafe and his generation want to make hip-hop music that’s on an even playing field with their American contemporaries. Nafe has faced criticism in the past for sounding like he’s mimicking American artists, but his style and versatility in bringing what’s needed to a record has allowed him to become the British counterpart to guys like Future, Gunna, and Tory Lanez, whom he previously collaborated with, respectively, on Wiley’s “Givenchy Bag,” M Huncho's “Broken Homes,” and “Good Love” off his own Good Love EP, released last summer.
When I ask how he dealt with the early criticism, he says UK fans weren’t accustomed to hearing that sound from the handful of artists who were doing it. “I feel like it is very cultural in the UK with the rap thing. In America, I don’t think mandem fully fuck with the grime as much because they don’t really get it. But over here, that’s like our thing. We get what’s going on,” Nafe says.
“This kind of style I’m doing... I feel like it is more understood universally, other than just in our culture,” he continues. “But I still got the culture in it, don’t get it twisted. I came up listening to everything. Not just American stuff, but old stuff. So I listen to grime. Skepta. All them. I’ve been locked in so young. [...] But I feel like the sound, when it is more melodic, I feel like it could reach further, like it could reach in a different kind of way.”
What remains consistent with the 23-year-old rapper’s music is that it comes from a place of authenticity, pulling from the street life he once lived and the journey it's taken him to now. Lately, he’s been coasting on his wins, coming off a year where he was featured on the soundtrack to the third season of smash-hit Top Boy (contributing “Riding on E” and “8 Missed Calls,” which perfectly fit the vibe of the show), as well as getting highlighted on Skepta’s 2019 album Ignorance Is Bliss on the single “Greaze Mode,” which is certified silver as of this writing. It’s the necessary momentum going into 2020 for the release of his next project, GOAT WORLD, slated for March 2020.
Nafe sums up Good Love as songs that were made from “a different point of love. Some of them are quite joyful, some of them are quite reflective. But all from a love point.” It’s certainly his most feature-heavy project, with collaborations by the likes of Lanez, Lil Berete, Chip, M Huncho, Yxng Bane, and OG Mano. It showcased that one specific side of Nafe, and the Luton-born artist is promising even more of himself will be revealed on GOAT WORLD, focusing on stories on “the come up and the lifestyle.” He explains of the title: “It’s the latest of me and the greatest of me.”
“It’s a little bit more explanatory in this next one than the last couple [projects] — just about myself and what I’ve been going through,” he says. “I have songs that are all good vibes, but I think this one is a bit more reflective. Like, the ‘Run It Up’ kind of thing, it touches on a few more bits. In terms of the music, it’s some of the best I have ever made. I’m excited to put it out.”
“I got so much stuff that’s gonna happen in the year. I can’t wait,” he adds. “It is the start of the new decade, and I’m just ready to go. Like I said, it’s going to be a new sound. It’s going to be a new frequency for the UK.”
Fans can hear his new direction on “Run It Up.” The Sean Murdz-produced single suggests Nafe is in a better place, touching on his past of bottling up pain, overcoming rough patches in his life, and counting his many blessings after getting through it all. The Craig Capone-directed video is a highlight reel of his recent shows and BTS footage, opening with he and his son FaceTiming about Arsenal and Liverpool football.
Later in the song, Nafe raps about “the levels” being different now — meaning his independent grind with Ozone Music has gotten him to live a bit more comfortably. “It feels good to pay my mumma light bill / If you ain’t got it mumma, you know I will,” he sings at one point.
“For my fans that have been fucking with me from earlier, I think it is quite an intimate track,” he says. “I think they appreciate the content over the song. Not to say they don’t fuck with the song, but 'Fire in the Booth' for example, it’s quite a deeper freestyle. Same as ‘Run It Up’ freestyle. It’s quite reflective on life and thoughts. I’m talking about this and that. It makes people fuck with it a bit more, especially my fans that have been with me from the beginning.”
Those loyal fans have seen the evolution of Nafe, who started dropping YouTube freestyles without pitch correction and moved onto experimenting with melody. Growing up in south-east England's Luton, where his dad was a local reggae DJ, Nafe says “it was calm,” excelling as a student at a young age with lots of free time for extracurricular activities. When he was 14, he recalls going into the school’s studios to mess around with the equipment after hours. “I would just go and chill in the studio and I would just stay there until the fucking cleaner would just come and be like, ‘Yo, just cleaning up, closing up, and locking up.’ So it would be all hours, I’d be in there,” Nafe says.
When Nafe attended college at 16, it was only for a brief time. His close friend Delly1shot was murdered, and his loss became too unbearable. So he turned to music as therapy. “I decided to stop going to college and I was in the studio all the time,” he says, building a routine of being in the studio and playing with Logic Pro every day. His friend Young Kye taught him how to record and mix.
“We did a lot of memorial kind of music,” Nafe remembers. “I can’t explain it, but just songs about my Gs that have passed and just the roads. That’s kind of how we really got into the melodies, like by the grieving songs. That’s what kind of kept [me] going and going, to the point where mans was confident with it.”
Nafe looked to his inner circle — YD, Young Kye, and Delzman — for approval in his shift in sound. His musical palette ranged from Link Up TV regulars to 50 Cent, Drake, Lil Wayne, and Bob Marley. Thanks to his father, he was influenced by soul music and reggae, but playing a lot of grime was always his thing, getting into the genre by watching crew freestyles on YouTube where they would just rap straight into the camera. The respect for the culture with his own unique twist gave him enough of a fanbase that, as he was getting more polished, found his music being spread online by Chip, Wiley, JME, and other artists of their ilk.
Particularly early career highlights included 2014’s “#LiveWhatYourDreaming,” which was his first YouTube song to go over one million views, and when he delivered a one-take Fire in the Booth freestyle on Charlie Sloth in 2016, by rapping for over seven minutes. With his New Year’s Special and Ozone Music mixtapes already out, Nafe says those co-signs got him the proper recognition as a talented artist from Luton, showing that the Luton and London music scenes can unify to represent the UK as a whole.
“I run into everybody these days, and everybody shows love and bigs up my city. It’s all love. It's a great feeling, especially to know I came up listening to them,” he says. “Skepta is the king for me in coming up in this music thing. I knew all of Skepta’s freestyles by heart. All of that shit. And now, I come out to these headlining shows — like 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 people — and we were just performing together. We got a joint song and it’s, like, a mad song, putting me on one of the biggest songs I’ve ever been involved in. It’s just like a big blessing man. It’s a crazy feeling.”
Nafe once tweeted: “Everytime I turn on the radio it’s me or one of my niggas playing. I remember when no1 understood what man was tryna do in dis music scene now look.” It’s a sense of accomplishment to hear your song on the radio. It’s even more of an accomplishment to see your work cause a ripple effect in how your home country is consuming your music; deeming your sound and the sound of other MCs coming up commercial enough for the airwaves. “Greaze Mode”' may be one of Nafe’s biggest songs thanks to Skepta, but he also has solo hits like “Gucci,” “Smokin,” or “Bad to the Bone,” that continue to keep him in the conversation as an artist to watch out for.
In the future, fans can look forward to Nafe coming to the States for the first time to collaborate with some of his favorite American artists. He wants to make music with Drake and Rihanna someday. He also has nothing but love for what Travis Scott, Gunna, and Lil Baby are doing and the movements they’ve built in rap. If all goes according to his plan, his vision of working with more American artists to create crossover records will help him properly break through in America. After all, he’s already predicting another change in trend for British rap in 2020.
“I know 2020 is going to be a new chapter, hopefully like a music revolution, almost,” he says of the popularity of the genre he is in the midst of innovating. “Change it from what it was to more like this. This is what it is now. Kids coming out of high school, they’re saying like, ‘Oh, I want to sound like Nafe Smallz. I want to sound like M Huncho. I want to sound like D Block [Europe]. I want to sound like this guy.’ When we was coming up, it was the guys that were doing the UK sound. Now, it’s them youtes coming up, listening to us. It’s going to change the chapter into another new sound again. It’s gonna be sick. I am excited to see it.”
Fashion Credits (in order): #1 - Knit Jumper and Scarf by Marni, trousers A-Cold-Wall. Trainers Reebok #2 - All Marc Jaques-Burton