- For many longtime grime fans in the UK, the music's rise in popularity at home and abroad has been somewhat bittersweet. This is arguably the most prominent grime has ever been, so how has there not been a great album since Dizzee Rascal's Boy In Da Corner? Released in 2003, that record was the first time many heard this style of beats and rhyme structures—13 years later, I would argue nothing has come close. For an album as hyped as Skepta's Konnichiwa, which has been teased since 2013, Boy In Da Corner feels like the only standard it needs to live up to. Skepta seems aware of this. In Konnichiwa's first two tracks, the London producer and MC makes references to "Fix Up, Look Sharp," arguably Dizzee's (and grime's) biggest hit.
Indeed, the first few songs act as a primer for the history of grime, as well as a recap of the recent years of Skepta's life. After a brief airy synth and vocal, a siren heralds his entrance on the opening title track. The bass comes in hard, countering the melodic intro. Lines like, "Boy better know a man went to the BRITs on a train," and, "Man shutdown Wireless, then I walked home in the rain," remind us of when he's dominated the music and, in some cases, the national press, while stressing that even though he's now more famous he's kept true to his Tottenham roots. The "Dooms Night"-sampling "Lyrics" is an ode to classic grime clashes like Lord Of The Mics and Sidewinder, the very foundation of the scene. The track's opening speech, as well as its title and final line of the chorus, comes from a 2001 showdown between Heartless Crew and Pay As You Go Cartel, and Skepta touches on classic moments like his beef with Devilman.
On these tracks, Skepta's beats are structured like classic grime, but he's become a much more restrained producer since 2007's Greatest Hits. There's a depth of sound that wasn't present before, and everything feels cleaner. This departure from the hectic, often overcrowded instrumentals leaves more room for vocals, and also makes the music more suitable for home or radio play. It seems likely that this development has helped prepare Skepta for his newfound global success.
Once satisfied that he's sated both his UK fans and brought international newcomers up to speed, Skepta moves to an entirely different tact. He's never been secretive about his transatlantic ambitions, and a good section of Konnichiwa seems to serve them directly, both in terms of guest spots and production. His approach, however, doesn't totally pay off. "It Ain't Safe" is comfortably the worst track on the album, with its ugly, lurching bassline and Skepta's uncharacteristically awkward flow. The Pharrell-produced "Numbers" fares better, but compared to The Neptune's era-defining best it sounds like an off-cut. Early single "Ladies Hit Squad" is the home run of the three. It's a filthy sex jam that combines classic grime punchlines with ASAP Nast's "Hotline Bling"-referencing chorus and a hazy backing track.
Konnichiwa then returns to more obvious grime fare. Out since mid-April, "Man" is still an exciting song to hear, and for Skepta's newfound US fanbase, "That's Not Me" and "Shutdown" might be all the convincing needed. But for most UK listeners, those two have been played to death. Thankfully, the album closes with two new cuts. "Detox" features many of his Boy Better Know crew and cements the current direction they've taken: true to their grime roots but with a distinctively trap swagger, with Footsie, a long-time advocate of fusing the two sounds, handling production. (Besides "Numbers," it's the only track here not produced by Skepta himself.) Closer "Text Me Back" succeeds in an area where grime has traditionally failed: an honest-to-god love song. Konnichiwa isn't perfect, but it mostly accomplishes the goals Skepta set for himself, and is certainly one of the best grime has seen so far.
03. Corn On The Curb feat. Chip & Wiley
04. Crime Riddim
05. It Ain't Safe feat. Young Lord
06. Ladies Hit Squad feat. A$AP Nast & D Double E
07. Numbers feat. Pharrell Williams
10. That's Not Me feat. JME
11. Detox feat. BBK
12. Text Me Back