Konnichiwa might be Skepta’s fifth album, but for many Americans it may as well be his first – which could be considered a minor blessing, because it means that his image isn’t tainted by the embarrassments that were 2009’s "Rolex Sweep" or his cringey foray into the Turkish market.
With grime slowly seeping into U.S. airwaves (or Spotify streams, rather), some of the English members of the Highsnobiety editorial team had their reservations about the album: would Skepta bow down to the dollar and Americanize his sound, or would he stay true to grime’s staunchly London roots? Regardless of his approach, how would Konnichiwa be regarded on the other side of the Atlantic? Is grime simply too foreign for American tastes, or would compromise veer too close towards pandering?
All of these questions can only be answered through a cultural lens, which is why we got two of our writers from opposite sides of the ocean to give their track-by-track review of Skepta’s latest release. Stephanie comes in for America, while Aleks, a Londoner, gives us his two pence worth.
Stephanie: Things start off all gongs, bird sounds, flutes and the breathy vocals of a woman sing-greeting "Konnichiwa." Then the ominous backbeat creeps in, and bam: enter Skepta. He’s verbose on this one –gliding between fallen friends, catching flights and exes– but it balances with the general sparsity of the track. By the end, the lingering piano sounds downright sinister (in a good way).
Aleks: Skepta obviously has little regard for the slow build if this opener is anything to go by. Rolling yet punchy, it has a great spit-along quality, IMO. Lyrics like “pop like the fifth of November” will fly over the heads of most non-Brits like a ruddy shelduck, which I like. It’s a hint of tribalism that’s such a big part of grime and Britain in general.
2. "Lyrics" (ft. Novelist)
S: Yes. Even though it’s early into the album this song might be my favorite Skepta. Between the downright grimy beat and the anybody can get it attitude, it packs the kind of authenticity that made songs like "Hot N***a" and "Don't Like" bang. Framing the lyrics and intention around the exchange in the sample only adds potency. You can easily imagine Skepta going mic to mic with an opponent.
A: Again, I’m a fan. There’s a certain "warrmp" sound in the background that bring back memories of the Friday nights of my late teens, which were spent exclusively at Drum & Bass raves – a rite of passage for many adolescents in Britain. I’m totally with the Dizzee Rascal diss, because he’s a bit of a wasteman, if you’ll excuse my patois.
3. "Corn on the Curb" (ft. Wiley)
S: The sparse but driving beat takes a backseat to Skepta and Wiley’s flow on this one. It works for me because it’s like a cool down from “Lyrics”. Given what we've heard so far, it also seems a bit more personal; Skepta circles around the idea of the high cost of notoriety, and although he’s not dwelling on it, it’s a chink in the armor. For all of the assuredness of “Lyrics”, Skepta’s aware that a small slip could easily mean a long fall.
A: Wiley’s appearance on this track is a fitting tribute to the George Washington of grime (who oddly doesn’t seem to be cashing in on its resurgence) but the music is starting to sound a bit samey by this point – not bad, but samey. That telephone interlude with Chipmunk is a bit cringe, though. Skepta’s not much of an actor, so the dialogue is about as gripping as a soap opera and I don’t think that an MC that names themselves after a small, adorably furry woodland creature should be given air time.
4. "Crime Riddim"
S: The beat drop feels straight out of a vintage video game. Coupled with the theme of Skep trying to dodge the feds I find myself imagining GTA: The Skepta Edition. Overall I like the slower flow and the simmering undertone of menace, but still, I wouldn't call this a favorite.
A: Again with the interludes. They’re poorly done, making an already uninspiring track borderline jarring. It’s a technique that can be used to great effect (Jedi Mind Tricks’ Violent by Design LP is a prime example) but it doesn’t work here for me. It's simply an odd fit.
5. "It Ain’t Safe" (ft. Young L.O.R.D.)
S: This is more my speed. As far as song order goes, the transition from the paranoia of "Crime Riddim" to Skep and Bari's mistrust of even the most familiar places is flawless. On top of that, the beat and bass is dirty AF. It has that head-nodding quality that kind of makes you screw up your face in satisfaction. "Never disturb a baker when he's mixing up the flour" feels like a potential future-classic catchphrase.
A: Absolute banger. ‘Nuff said.
6. "Ladies Hit Squad" (ft. A$AP Nast + D Double E)
S: Drake, is that you? Obviously it's Nast but something about the hook just screams Aubrey Graham was here. I suppose this would be the obligatory sexy tune for the ladies. Perhaps I'm not a lady, but this isn't my favorite purely because it feels a little contrived. Not that it matters, but I prefer menace-y, shit-talking Skepta. I also just have to point out the irony of the line, "I notice a couple n***as got my swag", considering the sheer amount of Drake-ery in the chorus, but I digress.
A: You’d expect Drake to appear on a track that sounds like a karaoke version of “Hotline Bling.” It’s also the beginning of a highly Americanized segment of the album that really illustrates the circles that Skepta is moving in now. It doesn’t sound bad overall, but Skepta’s verse is largely forgettable and a passenger to the chorus.
7. "Numbers" (ft. Pharrell Williams)
S: My coworker does not agree with me on this but I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this song. It feels like Clipse-era Pharrell – the beat is stripped back but still a bit quirky, and nothing is overstated or overdone. Skateboard P pleasantly surprised me when he dropped some bars on the third verse – he goes from "Happy" to flex gawd like it's nothing. Judging by my colleague's reaction this may be one of those songs that grows on you. I think it's a low-key banger though.
A: The thing that makes grime infinitely more respectable than UK hip-hop is the fact that it’s its own beast, an authentically London creation rather than a poor imitation of an American one. This one sounds like a U.S. house party to which Skepta wasn’t invited, but he’s standing outside and spitting bars through an open window while nobody takes notice of him. It’s not a bad track, but it doesn’t feel like his own – like a kid wearing his dad’s oversized trainers. Pharrell comes off far better in this one, but maybe that was the point.
S: Skepta is straight up savage on this. I'm also seriously considering adding "mandem" to my lexicon purely because he uses it with such finesse. All in all, this is like a grittier version of "No New Friends" in that Skep keeps going back to his desire to keep a small circle of trusted confidantes. It's cool, I'd bump this again but there are a few more I'd play before it.
A: I’m not arguing against experimentation, but this is a proper grime track, and one of the standout numbers on the album thus far. Artists need to evolve and experiment, but I think that if Skepta wants to make U.S. rap tunes, like the last two, he should at least learn how to do it well first.
S: "They tried to steal my vision/This ain't a culture/It's my religion"...I mean, quotes on quotes on quotes here. Plus, Skep goes between riding the beat like it's the most natural thing in the world to punching it repeatedly in the face with barzzz. Yes to the rapid fire flow and the general aura of smugness that permeates everything. This is definitely about eight times sexier than "Ladies Hit Squad."
A: There’s nothing I could possibly say about "Shutdown" that hasn’t already been said. It’s good. After slagging off his interludes in other tracks, this one fits perfectly.
10. "That’s Not Me"
S: Another flawless song transition; Skep goes from lining up the spoils of success to the quintessential money can't change me talk. JLO is still Jenny from the block and Skepta is still the realest grime dude walking -- that's basically the theme here. I also love a good sibling collab so props to him for featuring his brother. This is my colleague's favorite song on the album. I generally like it but "Lyrics" still has my heart.
A: I’m not ashamed to say that I took no notice of grime’s recent revival until I heard this. It’s my favourite track on the album and of the genre’s second coming. What’s up with JME’s lyrics, though? He’s just using random nouns with no obvious thought nor process behind them.
S: I like the idea of getting to meet some of the major players in the BBK camp via this track. The beat is nice and unorthodox which adds an appropriate layer of challenge. It's like watching someone with crazy potential when they're competing in the Olympics rather than just half-ass training at the local gym. By the end I'm like, BBK? Do tell me more.
A: The dark sound harks backs to the old days and the appearance of other BBK names makes me think of old “Lord of the Mics” episodes. It’s like they’re still all crammed in Jammer’s basement, only a bit greyer and wrinklier.
12. "Text Me Back"
S: Ok, ok, ok -- I take it back. "Ladies Hit Squad" didn't do it for me but this is cute on the low. Look, I'm only human so when Lion King references are thrown around while Skepta tries to romance his special lady my insides get a little mushy. It also helps take the album full circle, winding back down to the steady build of "Konnichiwa", but with much less ominousness. Once again, we see a chink in Skepta's armor, one that reveals a more personal side of the man beneath the swaggering braggadocio of "Shutdown" and "That's Not Me".
A: A great track that manages to strike a fine balance between sounding old school without being a prisoner to template, and fresh without compromising authenticity. It’s modern, a fitting snapshot of grime in 2016 with lingering traces of the early days that send a nostalgic tingle through the ear buds. Its sentimentality adds some breadth to the genre.
S: Although I wanted to go into this with no bias I'll admit that I read a few album reviews before I got started. Overall the reception was positive but a few people did note that Skepta seemed to be stagnating to some degree. Because I'm not a grime encyclopedia I'd be the last person to make that argument.
I will say that this album feels consistent to who Skepta seems to be as an artist. It seems like he got a little experimental in terms of collaborators and the type of beats he spits over, but if he hadn't then the stagnation argument might stick more. Overall, the project is frenetic, high-energy and rough around the edges. I'm a fan.
A: I wouldn't say there's a single bad track on Konnichiwa, but a couple do inspire indifference. I think the only one that I'd be tempted to skip ahead on would be "Crime Riddim" because of the jarring interlude. It's a fine blend of old and new, enjoyable but not groundbreaking. It feels more like a collection of tracks than a well thought-out album and just crosses over the 4/5 threshold for me.