It’s been three years since Skepta dropped the Mercury Prize-winning Konnichiwa, but you wouldn’t know it. During this period, the 36-year-old Tottenham emcee has easily been the most prolific rap artist without an album, dropping powerful verses alongside the likes of Drake, A$AP Rocky and slowthai while helping solidify UK hip-hop as a real force to be reckoned with in America. He’s even had time to become a fashion icon — his 2018 GQ shoot with Naomi Campbell was legendary, especially when you consider just how far he has come.
Once known for raw mixtapes and fiery underground rap battles with the likes of MC Devilman, Skepta is now rightly seen as a superstar who hangs with supermodels and has your favorite US rapper on speed dial. And this backdrop means fifth studio album Ignorance Is Bliss has more expectation than ever before. Skepta is no longer the underdog, and this is something made abundantly clear from the record’s tone, which straddles the line between celebrating the good life (on the trap-inflected “Greaze Mode,” Skepta raps: “If I ain’t the headline then I must be the special guest!”) and being paranoid (“Gotta mind who you talk to/ Man wanna jump on the wave/ don’t let ’em get cozy” he warns on “No Sleep”); enemies are plotting to take that number one spot.
Skepta comes across as somebody acutely aware he’s at his peak and of the subsequent challenges this poses, but this self-awareness can also get in the way a little. The beats here are big, with warped dub bass flickering in and out of each track in a way that suggests every song was made with a bouncing crowd in mind. But there’s also a sense Skepta has become too polished, and the rawness that made us love him in the first place has been replaced by a sheen that’s a bit predictable. He’s making the kind of radio-friendly tracks you’d expect the biggest rapper in a country to make, but you sense this is more out of obligation than personal enjoyment.
Tracks like “What Do You Mean?,” which has guest J Hus channeling 50 Cent at his catchiest on the hook, and “Gangster,” which features Skepta’s Boy Better Know crew are undeniably slick, but they lack any real edge. Their lyrics, which switch between cutting bars about exes and the idea of living flamboyantly, fail to really tell a story or make Skepta stand out from his peers. Thanks to subversive, politically conscious lyricists such as Dave and slowthai, UK rap has become much more socially aware over recent years. This means Skepta’s punchline-heavy bars – particularly an ill thought out line about slapping people like Ike Turner on the chorus of “Redrum” – can feel a little ordinary, if not tactless, in comparison. With a country in chaos thanks to Brexit and the prospect of a clown like Boris Johnson becoming the prime minister, Brits want their rappers to help them process this fuckery, and Skepta, who is so obviously focused on making club bangers to prolong his reign at the top, fails to really reflect this discourse.
The album’s best moments are when Skepta forgets about his responsibility as one of the UK scene’s biggest rappers and instead shows us what’s inside his heart. “Bullet From a Gun” is one of the most mature songs of his career, with bars such as “No better feeling than seeing my girl in the cot” hinting at an artist ready to drop the braggadocio and prioritize more adult themes such as family and identity in the future. “Same Old Story,” fueled by a beat that sounds like the music from a 16-bit Legend of Zelda dungeon, also deals with more mature themes, powerfully looking at a crumbling relationship. There’s also undeniable bangers such as “You Wish,” where a more confrontational Skepta will make you laugh via playful bars such as: “Must’ve been talking’ about sex if I ever said that I was tryna come second.”
But for every solid jam or more reflective moment, there’s a track that feels like Skepta is holding something back or making a see-through attempt at crossover success. Maybe some will have fun hearing him rap over Sophie Ellis-Bexter pop samples (“Love Me Not”), but for his day one fans this feels a little forced and jarring. There’s more highs here than lows, and this record will solidfy Skepta’s spot at the summit of UK rap, proving he knows how to rule the charts. Yet Ignorance Is Bliss isn’t nearly as engaging as Konnichiwa and his personality doesn’t come through as strongly. Ignorance Is Bliss is the album Skepta thinks the people want to hear, but it doesn’t necessarily sound like the record he wants to make; there’s a feeling that he works a lot better when he doesn’t worry about expectations.