Thanks to the unrelenting fuckery that is Brexit, Britain is a very hectic place to live in right now, with the country effectively split right down the middle. For some Brits, the uncertainty around their status in the European Union has made them feel more nationalistic, but for others, the idea of being patriotic has turned toxic and is now connected with a regressive way of looking at things such as immigration, race, and class. This feeling of chaos isn’t the easiest thing to translate into musical form, but it’s something slowthai manages to do with breathtaking ease on his debut album Nothing Great About Britain – a record that powerfully explores what it currently means to be British.
slowthai has a riveting way of taking all that’s good and bad about Britain’s political discourse, mixing it up in a blender and then processing it through clever, subversive lyricism. On the album’s opener, he both mocks Britain’s elitism (he channels the spirit of the Sex Pistols and calls Queen Elizabeth II a "cunt") while claiming that he’s still “proud to be British.” The energetic "Dead Leaves," meanwhile, posits that even though the UK is staring into the abyss, we’re still sitting around with that famous WWII spirit, drinking a cup of tea and feasting on delicacies such as jellied eels, our fingers in our ears as we pretend that everything is going to work out just fine. In thick bursts of energy, slowthai confronts the listener with everything positive and negative about British pop culture, and ponders whether it’s okay to still be proud of this nation even though it appears to be imploding. He takes two sides that are at odds with one another and puts them in the same room, and it feels genius.
With its references to Phil Mitchell, babies crawling on the ceiling, and the idea of “moving like Sid Vicious,” slowthai has created a quintessentially British record that isn’t at all bothered about appealing to the American market. But just like Dizzee Rascal’s Boy in da Corner or The Street’s A Grand Don’t Come For Free, it doesn’t really matter, with this escapist album’s frenetic energy and raw lyricism similarly destined to translate to a wider audience. This is very much about giving people an authentic slice of Britain, and not dressing it up so it appeals to Drake fans.
Never anything less than captivating, slowthai comes across like a manic court jester, conducting the show at a frantic pace as it moves from grime bangers ("Grow Up") to soothing introspection ("Gorgeous") to riot-inducing music that belong at a rave filled with people gurning their faces off ("Toaster"). His voice, which strains under the pressure of his forceful rapping style at times, feels reassuringly human, with the lack of polish created by slowthai recording all of his verses in one take, giving the record an aura of authenticity that’s endearing to listen to. It’s also very funny. As brilliant as one of this year's other standout British albums, Dave’s PSYCHODRAMA, is, it can feel overwhelmingly serious at times. slowthai, however, says things that will make you think as well as snort with laughter. His insult of “I'm tea bagging your favourite mug” is a personal favorite.
On the thumping "Doorman," which has punk sensibilities despite the fact it’s very much an anthem for the ends, slowthai makes sitting around bored and sniffing glue sound like the most exciting thing in the world; he takes the disenfranchisement of youth and somehow turns it into something fun. The more heartfelt "Northampton’s Child" reclaims the negative iconography around teenage British mums, forcing listeners to empathize rather than mock them, while providing a piece of social commentary that’s the absolute antithesis to a Daily Mail comment piece. But the poetic turn of phrase that stuck with me the most is present on "Peace of Mind" when slowthai spits: “I feel peace of mind when I think about a life I’m not living.” It speaks to a nation that has its head buried in the past or even the future, basically everywhere else other than the present. It feels like the perfect summary of everything that’s wrong with modern Britain, a nation trading on its former glories, afraid to confront the divisive bleakness of where it finds itself in 2019.
Nothing Great About Britain is perhaps the first essential piece of art to be born out of Brexit, with its creator putting out a debut album that deserves to be ranked alongside bold socially conscious UK rap classics such as Skinnyman’s Council Estate of Mind and Klashnekoff’s The Sagas Of…. But while those artists never really made it out of the underground, slowthai, whose slightly scary smile embodies the playful but brutal energy of Jack Nicholson’s Joker, bleeds star quality and has an edge that’s sorely lacking from many of his UK peers. He's also a much-needed regional voice in a UK rap scene filled with perspectives that are far too London-centric.
slowthai is the kind of witty artist that only comes once in a generation, and Nothing Great About Britain, with its artwork depicting slowthai being pilloried on his ‘Bush’ council estate in Northampton while people look on smiling, says a lot about what it feels like to be working class and British with a government that likes nothing more than to make cuts that are detrimental to society’s most vulnerable. This album feels and sounds like an instant classic, and there’s a sense slowthai will soon be the name on everybody’s lips.