Like Nicki Minaj and Foxy Brown before her, UK grime artist Stefflon Don has already built an impressive career for herself without even releasing an album, achieving more than the vast majority of her peers who have been in the game for way longer. Since she first hopped on a Jeremih song called “London” back in late 2016, the artist otherwise known as Stephanie Allen has already won a MOBO Award for Best Female Artist and appeared on the longlist for BBC Sound of 2017.
Though most impressive of all is the fact that Stefflon Don became the first British artist to ever feature in XXL‘s Freshman Class, and A-list collaborations with the likes of Ne-Yo, Big Sean and French Montana have only helped raised her profile even more. However, such success also brings pressure, too. After all, it’s been almost two decades since Ms Dynamite and Dizzee Rascal first crossed over to America, and grime has never fared as well since, despite persistent efforts from UK favorites like Skepta and Stormzy.
Earlier this year, Stefflon told Billboard that she aims for “world domination”, so the 26-year-old star has plenty to prove with SECURE, the first body of work that she’s released since Real Tings dropped right at the beginning of her career. Originally called Real Tings 2, Stefflon’s second mixtape features an enviable range of styles, showcasing her flow over a blend of tropical dancehall rhythms and grinding hip-hop beats, but will this global approach secure success for the young artist on a global scale?
Women in grime usually position themselves as relatable and down to earth, so it’s easy to see why Stefflon stood out on the scene early on, smashing through this tradition with the kind of swagger usually reserved for only the most bawdy of gangster rappers. The cover for SECURE directly acknowledges this, paying homage to the cover of Lil’ Kim’s most provocative album, The Notorious K.I.M., released way back in 2000. After the artwork leaked, the XXL Freshman revealed on Instagram that she wouldn’t “be as fearless” without Lil’ Kim, and it’s easy to see how Stefflon draws inspiration from the legendary rapper with those husky tones and unapologetic stance on sexuality.
Another idol of hers, Foxy Brown, allegedly resented this homage to her old-time rival, subsequently blocking Stefflon on social media, but the truth is that SECURE is clearly influenced by the pair in different ways. When the Hackney artist goes in hard on album tracks like “Jellio” and “Crunch Time,” the unflinching bravado on display hearkens back to the very best of Lil’ Kim, while more vulnerable moments on songs like “Favourite Girl” are reminiscent of Foxy Brown’s work from later on in her career.
This Haile collaboration shows another side to Stefflon that fans rarely get to hear, asking a partner if they can love her imperfections, “stretch marks any part in the section.” Of course, this wouldn’t be a Stefflon record without plenty of filth too, so it comes as little surprise when the track suddenly flips with lines like “Pussy drippin’ like a broken tap, drip, drip”. The same metaphor keeps things moist a couple of tracks earlier on in “Both Ways” too, where we discover that the grime star’s pussy is “dripping like a broken tap” so you’ve got to “stroke it from the back.”
During a recent interview with NME, Stefflon said that the industry needs “someone to stick up for women and make them feel good and beautiful about themselves.” By alternating between hardcore sexual brags and smooth summer jams like the lead single, “Pretty Girl,” Stefflon covers a wider spectrum of female sexuality than listeners might be used to hearing, particularly within the world of grime music.
Almost every bar that Stefflon drops on SECURE boasts feminine power in some way, whether she’s telling lovers to stop wasting her time on “Uber” or bragging that her “pussy make man just cry” at the end of her tropical single, “Senseless.” While the latter track is a particularly addictive cut from Stefflon’s arsenal, drenched with the Jamaican Patois that characterizes much of her work, other lines signify a kind of female strength that’s directed against others.
“Senseless” isn’t the only song where the British Don threatens to send rivals “to the cemetery” either. Throughout SECURE, Stefflon fires 16 shots and more at her rivals, asking listeners to avoid comparing her “to these pussy bitches” on hard-hitting tracks like “Precious Heavy.” Album highlight “Crunch Time” filters the swagger of US gangster rappers through Stefflon’s distinctive Hackney accent, delivering unforgettable lines like “Ejaculate on bitches and tell them to lick that cum off.”
On “Crunch Time,” Stefflon reminds listeners that rule number one is to “never fuck with a Don,” but never is this message made more clear than on the opening track, “Lil Bitch,” where she tortures the competition in her most glamorous video yet. Worlds away from the cartoonish “Intro” that kicked off her last mixtape, the Armie Hammer-approved anthem warns off any rivals who would dare fight her dominance on the scene. It’s a ballsy standout moment that few other songs on the record can live up to, but it’s clear that when Stefflon asks “What the fuck you want?,” she does in fact know exactly what we want from her.
With shades of Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money”, the promo for “Lil Bitch” is worlds away from Stefflon’s latest video for “Pretty Girl,” which eschews these earlier gangster leanings for a more light-hearted and decidedly British affair. While guest star Tiggs Da Author delivers exactly the kind of summery hook that radio needs right now, the London-based star effortlessly shifts between her parents’ Patois and her own Hackney inflection to create her own distinct flow.
Although songs like this have already made Stefflon a star in the UK, her evolution into American territory with guest star Future is what will ensure her global appeal on an international stage. A strong single contender, “What You Want” pits the two superstars together in a mournful rumination on fame, rapping about Gucci and Louis Vuitton with a sad yet typically heartfelt chorus. According to Stefflon, the collaboration almost didn’t happen at one point, as the hip-hop heavyweight had mixed feelings about the original beat she played for him, but Future soon changed his mind when the British star found something better suited to his tastes.
Thanks to her ambition and impressive work ethic, Stefflon has crafted a collection of songs that combine the very best of her global influences, slipping between gangster bravado, dancehall inflections, and London grime like a true Don. Production on some tracks occasionally bleeds into each other, and various influences from other female rappers can sometimes threaten to overpower Stefflon’s own distinct personality, but “world domination” can’t be far from her grasp now.
After all, even with her sexual bluster and technicolor hairstyles, Stefflon is still so much more than just the British Nicki Minaj, and this collection is a powerful calling card that suggests the best is still yet to come. True, she might not be a ‘Queen’ just yet like the Trinidadian rapper, but with her new mixtape, Stefflon Don has undoubtedly secured herself a place in the royal court.