Features | If Only You Knew: The Best Grime & Drill Of 2020 – The Quietus

Aaron Bishop selects his year-end highlights from the UK underground scene including projects and singles from names such as Abra Cadabra, J Hus, Digga D and Pa Salieu

Who would have thought that we would make it to 2021? (God willing.) With the overhanging threat of COVID-19 and consequent global shutdown, the music industry has seemingly become an unfortunate casualty as a result.
Although in terms of business, the industry has indeed taken a hit, this situation has also forced artists to be more creative regarding how they connect with their fanbases and entice them to spend their money on things other than just shows and club appearances.
Channelling the essence, digging down to the root of what it is that connects us to music has given some artists the opportunity to work on their craft and fans a chance to bond closer to them through things like Instagram Live. We had more time to discover new artists too. Well, I definitely did.
Virtual festivals and shows ruled the summer, as well as Tik-Tok videos (unfortunately) and so the business side of the industry found new ways to get streams up and the corporate wheels began to turn again. At this point so many of us are beyond eager to see our favourite artists live again and listen to a whole host of bangers in the club or on holiday.
As we come to the end of the year, a vaccine is seemingly on the horizon (should you choose to take it) and with it a return to something that resembles normal life. The music industry will survive, but this year has in some small way shown that the heart and soul of music might too.
Even with the restrictions placed upon it due to the pandemic, UK rap is a genre that seems to be in a very healthy place. We saw the ground-breaking Insomnia album between three goats: Skepta, Chip and Young Adz. J Hus revealed his second album: Big Conspiracy. Young T and Bugsey infiltrated America. The scene as a whole regularly entered the upper end of the charts with multiple number 1s and top 5 rankings. This is also the same year that saw Wiley beefing Stormzy and later be banned from the biggest social media channels. While elsewhere there was an insurgence of fresh energy from Pa Salieu and M1llionz.
Veterans like Dizzee Rascal, Frisco, D Double E and Jammer proved why they’ve stayed the course through their respective releases, and we saw stellar projects and singles from the new generation too. Headie One, Ivorian Doll, NSG and Digga D are just a few from a long list that could be named.
In a year that has caused so much upheaval and weariness, it seems that after three years away, the MOBO’s could not have returned at a more perfect time, providing a source of inspiration and celebration, along with a slice of normality. The award show dedicated to Music Of Black Origin will be hosted by Maya Jama and Chunkz and take place on 9 Dec on YouTube before later being broadcast on BBC 1.
Speaking about its return, MOBO Founder, Kanya King, said: “Recognising the unique role the MOBO Awards plays for so many, and the challenging year we find ourselves in, it is now more important than ever to be there and to continue the rich history of showcasing the very best of Black music and culture.”
This year’s ceremony is said to have “a strong vein of cultural purpose and social commentary [which] will weave through the ceremony as we articulate a vision of the world as it is, but also as we want it to be.” This suggests it will be powerful, thought-provoking and poignant. The hope is that it will leave a mark and capture the imagination, highlighting and celebrating black music and culture which has been a source of great help in what has been a difficult year. As we head towards the home stretch of 2020 it is important to be thankful to be here and to head into the new year with purpose and resilience, words that could be attributed to the MOBOs themselves and the artistry of which they showcase.
J Hus – Big Conspiracy
It feels like it’s been forever since J Hus unveiled his second album, Big Conspiracy to the world, but it was in fact only in January of this year. It became the East London rapper’s first number one LP and was certified gold by the summer. This is even more of a feat considering it was leaked before its official release date. It says a lot about the status of J Hus in the game and the relationship he has with fans that many refused to listen to the leak, instead waiting for the drop on streaming services. J Hus is the true golden child of UK rap and despite fans’ loyalty, in many eyes, it was going to take a lot for his next album to reach the same levels as his Brit and Mercury-nominated debut Common Sense. But he passed the test with flying colours, delivering a more stripped down and introspective offering. Accompanied with rich sounds from the likes of Jae5, TSB and IO, Big Conspiracy is arguably his best project to date. Earning him three MOBO nominations – including Album Of The Year – he is sure to win at least one of these categories, considering the impact he has made on and his importance to UK music.
Ghetts – ‘Mozambique’ ft Jaykae & Moonchild Sanelly
Ghetts is like a world class Premiere League striker who only gets to play twice during the season, yet both times gets possession and puts the ball firmly in the back of the net. Even though he’s only released two songs this year, the mastery of Ghetts’ craft is still evident for all to see. Regarded as one of the best MCs to ever grace the microphone, I could have chosen this track or the long-awaited collaboration with Skepta, ‘IC3’, as his entry in this end of year list. But ‘Mozambique’ is still playing in my headphones on an almost daily basis which grants it the spot. I described it as being “an amalgamation of wordplay, humour and expertise in the pockets Ghetts [picks] apart the beat with an elite level of poise and subtle arrogance like a lion strategically preying on a gazelle”. Featuring Birmingham MC Jaykae and South African artist Moonchild Sanelly, they add a venomous verse and a hypnotic hook respectively to proceedings and to my mind that is just as true of it now as it was upon its initial release. If this single is anything to go by then we’re in for a treat when the album comes sometime next year.
Nines – Crabs in a Bucket
Nines did what he does best this year. He popped up like a toxic ex sending a “hey big head” text, dropped his album and dipped just as you started to catch feelings again. Only next time, he may have to come back sooner than even he expects. The North West Londoner was already your favourite rapper’s favourite rapper and has converted his hood fame into industry success with two top five-charting albums to his name. But even he may have been surprised that his third album Crabs In A Bucket gained him the number one spot, beating names such as Metallica and Katy Perry. Some long-term fans felt that although quality work, it was not Nines at his best. With it having been a few months since its release, they may have different thoughts now, and the album is my personal favourite of his to date as well as one of my picks of the year. From the production to the content, there’s so much that could be said about Crabs In A Bucket but one thing is for certain: Nines is a trapper that raps fi true and makes it look easy. He has the most nominations at this years MOBOs with five: Album of the Year, Best Male Act, Best Hip Hop Act, Video Of The Year (for ‘Clout’) and Best Album (2017-2019) for Crop Circle, released in 2018. Something tells me Nines’ 2020 is not quite over just yet.
Abra Cadabra- Product Of My Environment
When I was making the framework for this end of year column, Abra Cadabra was going to be in it just off the strength of ‘On Deck’. The track is a certified banger, one of the songs of the year and would perhaps have been even bigger had the clubs been open. At the very least it is Abra’s biggest song since 2016’s ‘Robbery’ which went on to win him a MOBO for Best Song for the remix with Krept and Konan. But coming in his clutch of 2020 work is new mixtape Product Of My Environment which places him back at the forefront of the scene. The North Londoner has had a turbulent few years post-MOBO win. Expected to kick on from there, his projects and tracks have failed to have the same impact. At just 22 years old though, he seems to have now found his sound in drill and is making it his own. For those that say that all drill sounds the same, Abra is an artist who has found his pocket and is thriving and helping to expand the sound in the process. Experimenting with melody, different flows and often crossing over into rap territory, the mixtape doubles down on what has been a great year for the Tottenham rapper. Comparisons with the late Pop Smoke are inevitable due to deep tones of voice the pair share, but this project shows that he is an artist in his own right and is here to take the game by storm. Abra Cadabra has given everyone else a chance these last few years, but now he’s back and better than ever. And I can’t forget his latest MOBO nomination for ‘On Deck’.
Headie One – Edna
It is impossible to have an end of year column without mentioning the King Of Drill himself, Headie One. From delivering the better verse on a song with Drake, to having the UK number one album with his debut, Edna, Headie One has ended the year with his name engraved in the history of UK music and smoothly made his way into the consciousness of the mainstream sphere. Following on from the likes of Stormzy, J Hus and Dave, Headie One is firmly in the top tier, with even his feature verses being soaked in star quality, raising the bar on any song he touches. His album effortlessly expanded his sound and showcased his diversity through moments of introspection, scattered between his unique punchlines, flows and storytelling ability. It feels like we’re watching an artist entering his prime, and judging by the levels he’s touching already, the trajectory for the North London star is seemingly as high as he wants it to be. Nominated for two MOBOs (Best Male Act, Best Song) there may be a cherry or two still left to add to the Tottenham-born artists quite large metaphorical cake.
Scribz Riley – Wish Me Luck
While not strictly a rap offering, I feel it would be criminal not to include in this end of year list as it is one of the most stellar projects of the year. The fact that it is his debut offering as an artist makes it that much more exciting and there is no doubt in my mind that this time next year Scribz Riley will have have cleaned up during award show season. Wish Me Luck explores themes of love, heartbreak, trust and acceptance that hit so raw it may touch a nerve and put you in your feelings. It is a testament to Scribz Riley and the quality of the music, that it feels as though this EP could perhaps have been considered as a debut album. Featuring established artists such as Headie One and 6lack (among others), he seems at home amongst all of them. Delivering one of my favourite releases of the year, this is just the start of Scribz Riley’s artist career, and what a start it is.
Pa Salieu – Send Them To Coventry
Pa Salieu is arguably the best new UK rapper to come out of 2020. The 23 year old has taken this year by storm, releasing a bunch of powerful singles including ‘Betty’ and ‘My Family’ featuring Backroad Gee, culminating in his stunning, critically acclaimed, debut effort: Send Them To Coventry. In a scene where drill currently reigns supreme, Pa Salieu has managed to forge a path to success that follows his own blueprint. Across 15-tracks he blends dancehall and traditional Gambian sounds with drill and UK rap from his upbringing in Coventry. No longer plagued by the early accusations that he was similar to the much-loved J Hus, he has proved that he is in a lane of his own. To cap it all off he has been longlisted for the prestigious ‘BBC Sound Of…’ award for 2021 and nominated for Best Newcomer at the MOBO Awards. Pa Salieu has established himself as a star in the making. No doubt that next year he will continue to rise.
Digga D – ‘Woi’
What a year it’s been for Digga D. He’s spent the year in and out of jail but has still found time to release the entertaining, Silver certified, MOBO-nominated ‘Woi’ as well as the Top 20 reaching ‘Chingy (It’s Whatever)’. That’s without mentioning his documentary, Defending Digga which saw the rapper present a more human-side of his personality to the wider public and only served to endear him more to his fans. I said in a previous column that you can’t stop a star from shining and so it proves with his recently released ‘Daily Duppy’ freestyle hitting two million in less than five days. He’s mentioned in interviews that his next project is due to be released sometime next year. As one of the biggest artists in drill, it is sure to be worth the wait.
Potter Payper – Training Day 3
Potter Payper is a UK rap legend and if that wasn’t clear before, then this year has certainly gone a long way in clarifying that fact. He was released from prison earlier this year after three years and released not one but two projects in the latter half of 2020. The first was excellent four track 2020 Vision EP, but it was the trilogy completing Training Day 3 that really showed what he’s all about. Released independently, the project reached number 3 in the UK Album chart, marking the return of real rap following on from the success of Nines’ album only a month before. Filled with heartfelt, introspective bars, stories from his time in prison and on the roads, and raw, painful lyrics that tug at the heart strings, the project shows the Barking-based rapper at his best. During his press run he was keen to point out that it is a mixtape, which will leave fans watering at the mouth at the prospect of an album hopefully sometime next year.
Unknown T – Rise Above Hate
There is a case to made for Class Of 98s to sit in the final spot of the column, but I think special mention needs to be made for Unknown T and his debut project, Rise Above Hate. Even while he was in jail his name was ringing off in the streets and when he returned, he did not disappoint. Many in his position would have faltered due to the pressure but instead he has remained focused, following up with his part in the 98s project as well as memorable features with NSG and Vybz Kartel. Personally, I feel as though the MOBOs have done a good job with their nominations this year but if there is one artist who can feel a way for missing out, it is Unknown T for sure – something he expressed on Twitter. But his time will come and hopefully the disappointment will spur him on to raise his levels once more as we head into the new year.
This year’s MOBO awards air live on YouTube at 7pm and then hit the BBC at 10.45pm tonight (Tuesday Dec 9)
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